Mediterranean crockery has a lot to answer for. It famously spoke thus to John Keats: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Well, even if true, it’s obviously not all one needs to know. But then Keats was never one for irritable reaching after fact and reason. Any attempt at ‘cold philosophy’ would, as he wrote in another poem, ‘unweave a rainbow’. It would also, the poet groaned, ‘empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Gnomed mine? Really?
The Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, though, is determined to put the gnomes back into the mines. His eccentrically brilliant book is a ‘meditation’ on the possibility that beauty really is truth. From the Pythagorean mantra that ‘All things are number’, and Plato’s atomic theory (wrong in detail but surprisingly right in many principles), through to Newton’s work on light and gravity, and up to modern quantum theory, Wilczek offers a stirring defence of rationalism: the uncovering of truth through pure reason.