Magic numbers: can maths equations be beautiful?


Paul Dirac had an eye for beauty. In one essay, from May 1963, the British Nobel laureate referred to beauty nine times. It makes four appearances in four consecutive sentences. In the article he painted a picture of how physicists saw nature. But the word beauty never defined a sunset, nor a flower, or nature in any traditional sense. Dirac was talking quantum theory and gravity. The beauty lay in the mathematics. What does it mean for maths to be beautiful? It is not about the appearance of the symbols on the page. That, at best, is secondary. Maths becomes beautiful through the power and elegance of its arguments and formulae; through the bridges it builds between previously unconnected worlds. When it surprises. For those who learn the language, maths has the same capacity for beauty as art, music, a full blanket of stars on the darkest night.

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