On Beauty

What is beauty?

surely we’ve all had the experience of thinking about a word—‘ pen,’ say— and of sort of saying the word over and over to ourselves until it ceases to denote; the very strangeness of calling something a pen begins to obtrude on the consciousness in a creepy way, like an epileptic aura. -- David Foster Wallace

What beauty means

beauty: noun ( pl. beauties )

  1. a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses.

Beauty is

Pollock's Autumn Rhythm
Pollock's Autumn Rhythm

Beauty is

Beauty is simplicity

  • (in software)

How do we know if anything is any good?

  • most of our problem
  • after we have basic skill we must learn discernment

Beauty is a clue

Is it that what is good is beautiful or is it that what is beautiful is also good?

Shaving Yaks with Occam's Razor

  • Occam's razor, doesn't necessarily apply to nature.
  • no reason nature must be simple
  • We hope nature is simple
  • Code, artificial by nature: Occam's Razor holds

Occam version 1

Something which is simpler is more likely to be true

Occam version 2

Something which is beautiful is more likely to be true

Aesthetic senses

  • what is good is beautiful
  • we can spot what is beautiful
  • we need to develop the aesthetic senses

Simplicity is beauty


  • as usual, it leads the way

An early need to capture form

Cave paintings
Cave paintings

Architecture: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

  • extreme clarity and simplicity
  • modern materials could support themselves
  • the structure is the form
  • "skin and bones"

Farnsworth house

Farnsworth house at night
Farnsworth house at night

Farnsworth house

Farnsworth house interior
Farnsworth house interior

Barcelona chair

Barcelona chair
Barcelona chair

Music: Erik Satie

Sculpture: R. R. Wilson

Acqua Alle Funi
Acqua Alle Funi

Writing: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it. -- Gustave Flaubert

More matter with less art. -- Shakespeare

Math: always talking about beauty

The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree. -- Aristotle

Beautiful proofs

Pythagorean theorem

Visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem
Visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem

Completing the square

Completing the square

Platonic solids

Tetrahedron, 4 faces, triangles {3,3} Hexahedron 6 faces, squares {4,3} Octahedron 8 faces, triangles {3,4}} Dodecahedron 12 faces, pentagons {5,3} Icosahedron 20 faces, triangles {3,5}

e - the natural number

Physics: always talking about beauty

Eightfold way

Physics organizes subatomic mesons into a beautifully symmetric chart
Physics organizes subatomic mesons into a beautifully symmetric chart

Simple parts

Hadrons are simply pairs or triplets of quarks
Hadrons are simply pairs or triplets of quarks

Murray Gell-Mann

Three principles — the conformability of nature to herself, the applicability of the criterion of simplicity, and the "unreasonable effectiveness" of certain parts of mathematics in describing physical reality — are thus consequences of the underlying law of the elementary particles and their interactions. Those three principles need not be assumed as separate metaphysical postulates. Instead, they are emergent properties of the fundamental laws of physics.

(named "quarks" among many other things)


Well, what would it look like if it had looked as if the earth were rotating?


Broken Symmetry sculpture at Fermilab
Broken Symmetry sculpture at Fermilab

Programmers: always talking about beauty

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. -- C.A.R. Hoare

There's a whole book

Beautiful Code Cover
Beautiful Code Cover

Dijkstra's Algorithm

Finding the shortest route

Tying the knot

data DList a = DLNode (DList a) a (DList a)
    mkDList :: [a] -> DList a
    mkDList [] = error "must have at least one element"
    mkDList xs = let (first,last) = go last xs first
                 in  first
      where go :: DList a -> [a] -> DList a -> (DList a, DList a)
            go prev []     next = (next,prev)
            go prev (x:xs) next = let this        = DLNode prev x rest
                                      (rest,last) = go this xs next
                                  in  (this,last)


Complexity is burying us and is seemingly insurmountable.

The good news is that we all have built-in beauty detectors.

We can sense what is wrong. We must listen to that feeling if we are to produce things which are simple and beautiful.

Why have I belabored this?

  • A confession


"Simplicity is not an objective in art, but one achieves simplicity despite one’s self by entering into the real sense of things." -- Constantin Brancusi (via Rich Hickey)


  • Chris Wilson
  • @twopoint718
  • Bendyworks
  • Madison, WI, USA, Earth