David Orrell

David Orrell. Writer and Mathematician

Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order

» Sunday Times “Must Reads” book

» Amazon China top-ten science bestseller

» Finalist: Canadian Science Writers' Association book award

Publishers: Yale University Press, Oxford University Press (Canada), PHEI (China)

Publisher's synopsis

In this sweeping book, applied mathematician and popular author David Orrell questions the promises and pitfalls of associating beauty with truth, showing how ideas of mathematical elegance have inspired - and have sometimes misled - scientists attempting to understand nature.

Orrell shows how the ancient Greeks constructed a concept of the world based on musical harmony; later thinkers replaced this model with a program, based on Newton's "rational mechanics," to reduce the universe to a few simple equations. He then turns to current physical theories, such as supersymmetric string theory - again influenced by deep aesthetic principles. The book sheds new light on historical investigations and also recent research, including the examinations ongoing at the Large Hadron Collider. Finally, broadening his discussion to other fields of research, including economics, architecture, and health, Orrell questions whether these aesthetic principles reflect an accurate way to explain and understand the structure of our world.

“Fascinating ... Orrell is an engaging and witty writer, adept at explaining often complicated theories in clear language ... he argues persuasively that scientists need to let go of outmoded aesthetic notions and embrace complexity.” Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times

“The philosopher Bertrand Russell averred that mathematics has a beauty 'sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection'. But is science inextricably allied to aesthetic beauty? In applied mathematician David Orrell's exploration of the Pythagorean quest to realise the cosmos mathematically, the cracks in that paradigm show.” Nature

“It is thrilling to question the high-minded objectivity of scientific discourse, and Orrell makes a convincing case for the adoption of new aesthetic principles ... This engrossing book begins by questioning the assumption that truth and beauty are coextensive, but ends with the more exciting proposal that we must formulate new ideals of beauty if we are to advance in our search for the truths that both scientists and artists pursue.” Benjamin Eastham, V&A Magazine

Truth or Beauty gives a well-written, historically informed argument that science has gone off the rails ... The question Orrell is addressing is an important and topical one.” Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law

“A lively and engaging work ... The range of topics Orrell brings to bear is impressive, and I always wanted to keep turning the pages.” Robert Smith, University of Alberta

“A graceful and insightful history of the Pythagorean impulse to model the world in mathematical terms. Orrell analyses Western scientific culture's quest for order and links it to an essentially religious conception of beauty.” Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras' Trousers and Physics on the Fringe

“If science is the search for truth, we'd better understand what is this truth that we seek. As David Orrell pointedly argues in this well-written and accessible book, modern science runs the danger of being blinded by an overarching aesthetic prejudice - traceable back to Ancient Greece - that truth is necessarily wedded to beauty. Quite the opposite, the more we learn about the natural world, the more we are forced to accept a different kind of aesthetic based on the imperfect and the asymmetric, and no less beautiful for it.” Marcelo Gleiser, author of A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Appleton Prof. of Natural Philosophy, Dartmouth College

“Interesting ideas; well-presented ... A thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking book.” the complete review

“Well-written and in an engaging style.” Winnipeg Free Press

“Whether a delight in disorder, impermanence, and imperfection will provide us with concepts as productive and 'true' as the mechanical models of the past is a question that has yet to be answered. If it does, we may look back upon Truth or Beauty as an important manifesto for our age. But even if it doesn't, Orrell has provided an intriguing way of thinking about how we got here.” Quill & Quire

“Orrell maps a sweeping history of the physical sciences, a history riddled with the search for harmony, unity, symmetry.” Literary Review of Canada

“From the social psychology of human behaviour to the grand unifying dreams of cosmology, he shows how the irresistible popularity of supposedly beautiful but otherwise fanciful and unprovable ideas has fed the impression that some branches of science are all fizz and no gin.” National Post

Recommended “New Year book.” Xinhua

“The book contains equal parts philosophy, economics, arts, politics, and more. This is a work in touch with its subject - the entire world.” Listen to podcast review from Burning Books

Watch video review (Italian) from Enciclopedia Italiana:


Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful?, by Christopher Shea, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 January 2013.

Why is science so obsessed with beauty?, by Robert Everett-Green, The Globe and Mail, 21 March 2013.

Truth or Beauty? Hold onto both, by Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun, 4 March 2012.

Truth or Beauty, by David Orrell, Huffington Post, 14 November 2012.