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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Price: $30.00

Hardback 356 pp.



Publication date:
October 2012

Imprint: OUP Canada

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Truth or Beauty

Science and the Quest for Order

David Orrell

For millennia, scientists and philosophers have strived to show that the universe is governed by a few simple principles. These principles are not derived from science. They do not come from looking through telescopes or carefully examining the results generated by particle colliders. Rather, they are based on aesthetic laws and concepts such as symmetry, beauty, and unity.

Scientist and author David Orrell considers how aesthetics have influenced the models we create in hopes of explaining our universe. His book begins with a look at early scientific thinkers, from the ancient Greeks to Galileo. The ancients constructed a concept of the world based on musical harmony; later thinkers overturned this concept, but replaced it with a program, based on Newton's "rational mechanics," to reduce the universe to a few simple equations. Orrell then turns to the scientific program of the twentieth century, culminating in supersymmetric string theory, which was again influenced by deep aesthetic principles. In a final section of the book, Orrell broadens his discussion to other fields of research, including economics, architecture, and health. Recent history has shown us what happens when financiers rely on a model of economics that resembles what a good theory "should look like" rather than the messy reality of human interaction.

Ideas of mathematical elegance have inspired, entranced, and "sometimes misled" thinkers in their desire to find the laws that govern our universe. Orrell evaluates these aesthetic principles as a means of understanding the structure of the universe - let alone messy human society - and questions whether they reflect an accurate way to understand our world.

Truth or Beauty comes at an interesting period, when the multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has been designed to test the existence of exotic phenomena such as supersymmetric particles. Will these too turn out to be nothing more than a beautiful illusion?

Readership : Students of the history of science and the philosophy of science will be interested in this fresh and cutting-edge evaluation of past scientific thinking. Scientists and many general readers with an interest in science will be drawn to Orrell's name and background, and unusual take on bias in scientific theory.


  • "well-written and in an engaging style."

    --Winnipeg Free Press

  • "Fascinating...Orrell is an engaging and witty writer."

    --The Sunday Times

  • "Orrell maps a sweeping history of the physical sciences, a history riddled with the search for harmony, unity, symmetry-and a search that was at times very successful."

    --Literary Review of Canada

1. Harmony
2. Integrity
3. Radiance
4. The Crooked Universe
5. The Masculine Philosophy
6. Unity
7. Broken Mirrors
8. Shadow World
9. The Virtual Universe
10. The Left-Handers Guide to the Cosmos

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David Orrell is a mathematician by trade whose work has taken him to diverse areas including particle accelerator design, weather forecasting, economics, and cancer biology. His books have appeared on local and national bestseller lists in Canada, and he also writes research papers on topics ranging from systems biology to systems economics, and articles for publications including World Finance, Adbusters, and Literary Review of Canada. His scientific work has been featured in New Scientist, in the Financial Times, and on CBC TV.

Sociology of Science - Myra J. Hird

Special Features

  • Successful author. Mathematician David Orrell is known for his outside-the-box approach to issues of modelling and bias in science.
  • Insightful narrative. Explains how the concept of beauty has influenced scientific thinking, past to present.
  • A true history of science. Discusses ancient Greeks, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton to the most current supersymmetric string theory.
  • Unwavering. Orrell is not afraid to ask if even the most complicated theories are flawed by the desire to create a perfect, symmetric theoretical model.
  • Original. One of the first books to evaluate the results of the Large Hadron Collider.
  • Cross-disciplinary. Physics, economics, architecture, and epidemiology are among the fields evaluated in this wide-ranging approach.
  • Popular audience. Few authors are able to write on topics as complex as string theory and astrophysics for the general reader.