Matter and Beauty

This news in astronomy got a bit of attention in a few newspapers last week. The discovery was that a distant star system has six planets orbiting at different resonances, or rates of orbit, that are related to one another in precise ratios.

Imagine one planet orbits its star at twice the rate of another planet in the same system, a third planet that orbits four times as fast (these ratios are made up), and so on.

This arrangement is both beautiful to behold and mathematically harmonious. Current thinking suggests that these neat arrangments probably arose during the formation of the star system, while fusion gets underway, and dust and gas accumulate into planets. If these initial relationships still hold, it means we are looking at a system whose planetary bodies have not been disturbed over billions of years. The perfection of the system can be seen as a mechanical time capsule, a glimpse at the original creative force that first pushes stars into motion.

On a related note, I’ve been returning to Spinoza’s work recently because I’m going through this book. I thought of him when I read about this concordance of ideal motion and intellectual beauty. In it, I see a phenomenon that Spinoza would find particularly pleasing. In his Short Treatise, Spinoza writes about the two types of Natura naturata, or “those modes or creatures which immediately depend on, or have been created by God:” “motion in matter, and “intellect in the thinking thing.” On matter:

With regard particularly to motion, it belongs more properly to a treatise on natural science than here, [to show] that it has been from all eternity, and will remain to all eternity immutable, that it is infinite in its kind…

And the intellect:

As for intellect in the thinking thing, this too is a Son, product, or immediate creature of God, also created by him from all eternity, and remaining immutable to all eternity. Its sole property is to understand everything clearly and distinctly at all times.

Spinoza was writing at a greater level of generality here than that of particular planetary bodies in motion or the constructs of an embodied human mind, but I still think that he would, at least aesthetically, be struck by the harmony between astronomical motion and the constructs of the intellect. The situation offers a natural opening to the idea that matter and the intellect are in rational coordination with one another: that motion achieves its perfected realization in contemplative understanding, and the special status of the intellect is confirmed in the material embodiment of what it knows.

Tags philosopy physics