6 min read

Truth and Beauty

by Faisal M. Lalani

When we conceptualize the universe, many of us still think of it in terms of three fundamental particles. This isn’t entirely incorrect, it’s just that it’s often the wrong three. Electrons, protons, and neutrons are the ones that may come to your mind, but in fact there are deeper peculiarities. The latter two are comprised of quarks, and therefore the elementary particles we should be thinking of are electrons and two different kinds of quarks, up quarks and down quarks. Somewhat even more compelling, I think, is the theory that these particles are not particles at all, but concentrated, discrete packets of energy in fluctuating fields that envelop the universe. But more on that another time.

The discovery of quarks is a wondrous thing in its own right, but what astounds me is how there are two other pairs of these strange little particles, each in pairs and similar in almost every way to up and down, but heavier and heavier. Among these pairs are top and bottom quarks, and here’s the astounding part - they were originally called truth and beauty.

The scientific community never embraced it, and top and bottom stuck instead. There is no solid explanation I can pin down for this. The final two types - charm and strange are whimsical in their own right and have made it through the litmus test. But truth and beauty are apparently too much.

I have my suspicions why.

There appears to be a historical rift between physicists and philosophers. Perhaps it is a continuation of the hubris of scientists to demand objectivity in any conclusion or perhaps it is the conceited “meaning-of-life” proclamations of philosophers that harvest headlines and yields far more engagement than the discovery of the largest black holes.

I wonder if it is a far more fundamental reason: sanctuary.

When I was an undergrad, I was a vindictive technosolutionist. I believed in the power of technology to transform society for the better, in the ubiquity of smartphones to be the most powerful indicator of progress in the world. While these sentiments have their own merits, they fail to provide real systemic change in the face of problems that yearn for institutional or human-centered solutions.

But as I mentioned, I was vindictive. The appeal to me was not in the effectiveness of a technology, but in its perceived isolation. I projected a purity onto it that let it live in a vacuum, an escape for me to invest in independent of the loneliness that plagued me. The code I wrote involved no pressure to confront my social anxieties, or an expectation for me to perform in public. Like a pianist absorbed in the boundaries of their 88 keys, I could just play.

How difficult it was for me, then, to realize that there is no escape. The projects I would partake in were used by people, and those people possessed the peculiarities of the human experience that I and several of my more stringent colleagues would characterize as political. Their identities - racial, sexual, or otherwise - demanded expression, their cultural nuances resisted homogeneity, and their very existence presented an ultimatum: accept our flaws or leave. How, then, would I ever find solace?

I discovered then that to characterize something as political was just another way for us to escape.

A recent argument over the walled-off approach taken by my religious community reinforced this revelation. Our inclination has always been to refrain from being involved in the present-day machinations of the world, justified by upholding the safety that refraining from weighing in on matters of the horrors in Gaza or the Black Lives Matter movement would sacrifice.

Our community is diverse, the diaspora spreading in all corners of the globe and persisting through the harbor of our places of worship and the philanthropic networks built by our religious leadership. To weigh in on one side or the other of a particular movement could risk the well-being of a part of the community somewhere, and so we don’t. The fundamental principles of our sect are meant to speak for themselves: an insistence that all human lives are equal, and that through our service and routine commitment to peace and unity, we reinforce that insistence.

While I don’t disagree with logic, I also find it stagnant in the advent of a generation insistent on another commitment, one that goes beyond the philosophies of their forebears and refuses to stand by as injustices stare at them in the face. It is a commitment that, if left unanswered, I fear will find its reckoning in more dangerous ways that will leave those forebears left questioning how the fracturing of their sanctuaries could ever happen when they themselves only sought the preservation of their souls in a medium meant to instill peace. Not politics.

But politics persists. It persists in the gay community member who can’t detach his sexual identity behind in the same halls of prayer that propagate social interaction through summer camps, welfare programs, and social dynamics that are more lenient for more orthodox lovers. It persists in the Black Muslim who sees the defilement of her race when her fellow Muslims view her as second-class in the embedded hierarchies we don’t talk about. It persists in implicit caste structures and it persists in the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” financial rat race and it persists in the shame of immigrants attempting to reconcile in a country trying to keep them out.

Where is their sanctuary?

Last week, I was at a lecture - ironically, on quantum physics - in a building near Columbia University. It was something I was greatly looking forward to as a hiatus from thinking about all of my current work on social movements and political activism. No sooner had the lecture started that shouts and sirens filled the room, leaving little room for quantum field theory and qubits. The campus protests were in full swing right next door.

It was as if the universe demanded retribution for my assumption that I could somehow take a break, a real world metaphor of how there is no escape from politics because there is no escape for Palestinian children dying in droves on the other side of the world. Their suffering is our suffering, and to pretend otherwise is a betrayal to a great many people.

And, speaking of betrayal, now these students all over the country are being arrested because they are brave enough to remind their universities that there is no escape.

None of this is to say that the inclusion of politics and social constructs in the domains of science and religion is necessarily an ailment one must live in spite of. Rather, it can be very powerful in shaping how we think about the universe.

For instance, think of how we perceive the environment. It’s commonplace to imagine nature as something distinct from us, either more primal or more authentic. Calls to save it imply that there is a destination to go to and an externality to reform. By many nature itself is seen as refuge from modern life.

But the climate question is a human question, and sustainability activists and ecologists have helped shape an understanding of the environment that prevents dissonance between the two. As wildlife ecologist and conservation scientist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant beautifully puts it, “our lives are foundational environmental”. By framing climate science and activism as fundamentally intertwined with one another, research and emerging technologies can better take into account how wildfires and water pollution as sociological risk factors, similar to how global heath and epidemiology understood it back when John Snow combined the two to prevent a cholera epidemic in the 1850s.

Even outside of helping form intuitive solutions, the embrace of philosophy can lead to more widespread understanding and discovery of the unknown. The very fabric of science is woven from those privileged enough to weave it, and throughout most of history that means how we think about the world is rooted in the minds of those few elites. To decolonize science is in its best interest because through the strengthening of its relationship with philosophy, new ways of thinking about the universe become not only possible, but inevitable.

Think about how even very recently the world gazed together at the solar eclipse and formed countless theories and metaphors about what such a phenomenon meant for their lives. While some thought about the mathematical absurdity of the three-body problem, many reflected on love and unity.

Imagine that there are two elementary particles of the universe called truth and beauty. Not all of us are scientifically inclined - I myself departed from a physics degree when I realized how incompatible I was - but start from truth and beauty. Murray Gell-Mann founded The Eightfold Way (after the Buddhist path to enlightenment) to group particles by strangeness (describing decay). How might we characterize other properties of particles through a more philosophical lens? If the electric charge of a truth particle is fractional, meaning it’s +2/3e, what might we say about its powerful tendency to always group together with other fractionally charged quarks?

Science informs philosophy which informs science, and so forth. There is no detaching the two just as there is no detaching institutions from the technologies they use or religion from the identity of its worshippers. There is no sanctuary. But, perhaps, that’s okay.

In the words of theoretical physicist and Black feminist Chanda Pressed-Weinstein, the universe is “always more bizarre, more wonderfully queer” than we can possibly imagine.

Singapore (2023)