November 30, 2010

WE ARE ALL DESIGNISTS NOW:

Pi in the Sky: Is mathematics a divine language? (Mark Vernon, November 30, 2010, Big Questions)

It’s not just the universal nature of mathematics that’s striking; it’s that mathematics works at all. The natural world is a complex place. It’s packed with variations and permutations, random events and patterns so complex they are far from obvious to the eye. And yet, mathematics can capture so much of that intricacy. What kind of alchemy transforms the lead of messy reality into the gold of a simple equation? It’s a question that was famously asked by the physicist Eugene Wigner, in 1960. He wrote an essay with a title that says it all: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.”

Wigner notes the sense that many physicists have: mathematics seems to be discovered, not created. The reason to think this is that discoveries made about the physical world are often, first, discoveries made about mathematics. One of the best known cases concerns Einstein and his work on General Relativity. These equations implied something about the universe that Einstein, at first, refused to believe — that the universe was expanding. It was only later that cosmic expansion was observed by Edwin Hubble. [...]

And the extraordinary nature of math can be developed further. After all, do not physicists routinely use criteria such as “beauty” to determine whether they are on the right track or not? The physicist Paul Dirac put it most clearly, in a 1963 article for Scientific American, writing, “It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has a really sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.” Of course, mathematical predictions must be verified by observation. But that such predictions are verified at all is the nub of the issue. Mathematics looks miraculous.

It’s an ancient idea. The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz mused on the power of mathematics, and it led him to draw theological conclusions. “When God calculates and thinks things through, the world is made,” he thought.


Ditto Man



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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2010 8:56 PM
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