David: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of beauty to you in ideas. Do you find…?
GC: Everything is sexual. It’s all Eros, Eros and Thanatos. Another way to put it: it’s Shiva – destruction and creation. These are the basic, common forces. Creation is all about beauty. Sex and creation is the same thing. This is what motivates artists, and I think it’s where you get the energy to do good scientific work also.
Some of my most creative periods – I was ignoring women. I mean, I was terribly fascinated by them, but I was shy, and I put all this energy into mathematics. This was like a substitute for sex. I found mathematics absolutely sensual. I thought, at that time –teenage boy – I thought some proofs of mathematical theorems were as beautiful as a beautiful, naked woman, for example. If I had been chasing girls at that time, then there would have been no definition of randomness and no Omega number. So I made up for lost time later, but…
David: Well, I’m glad to hear it.
GC: Yeah, fortunately!
David: But was it a guide for your work? Because we’ve talked to some people who’ve said… and there’s famous stories where people have said, ‘If I find an idea beautiful, then this is what tells me that the truth is going to be that way.’ Have you found that?
GC: What I was really looking for… it’s not just beauty: I wanted to get to the bottom of things. I’m looking for the mysteries – the deeply hidden mysteries behind things. It’s sort of like looking for magic. In the Middle Ages I probably would have tried to do magic. Remember that Newton did: Newton was an alchemist. He was not a modern thinker at all, like Voltaire portrays him. He was the last of the Babylonian sorcerers, as Maynard Keynes said in that wonderful essay. Science is the same idea as magic: that there are hidden things behind everyday appearances. Everyday appearance is not the real reality. The apparent reality is not the real reality, and we want to get behind things to the real reality.
Beauty is very important. I certainly agree with beauty, but I also find these fundamental truths deeply beautiful in some way. Your notion of what is beautiful affects everything, colours everything, your whole conceptual scheme, it’s all connected.
The notion of truth and beauty cannot be separated. Now the notion of beauty changes as you go, as you create it, as you find it. But that’s what mathematics is really about at the deepest level, at pure mathematics.
Max Born has a wonderful essay, and he says, ‘Well, we make it up as we go.’ You know, in retrospect, the notion of what is beautiful is something that we create as we go based on things that have worked before. And I think it’s certainly true, because if you look at Japanese aesthetics and Indian aesthetics versus European aesthetics, they’re completely different. So he doesn’t believe in an absolute notion of truth. He believes we create a notion of truth: we create the universe.
David: What do you think of that, Greg? Where do you lie on that?
GC: Well, I think it’s more fun to take the provocative extreme instead of the conventional view, always, so you can guess that I’m going to be on the side that beauty is what counts, but that we are inventing our notion of beauty. This is part of human creativity to create notions of beauty. We create aesthetics, we create moral systems, philosophical systems, religious systems, and beauty is an absolute integral part of this. Remember that people a century and a half ago, they weren’t religious like they had been during the Middle Ages, but God still survived, at least to talk about the good, the true and the beautiful, which now are subjects that I thought you couldn’t mention, but it seems fortunately we’re able to discuss in this series.
But those were prohibited topics for a long time, because it was like being a religious fanatic if you mentioned those words.
David: Yes, it’s odd.
GC: So I’m glad to hear them mentioned again