For a number of years I have collected excerpts that portray mathematical ideas in a literary or philosophical setting. I had occasion to read a few of these on the last day of some math classes I was teaching, since there was no point in introducing a new subject before the final exam.
I thought it might be interesting to present some of these excerpts now. They roughly fall into three categories: logic, infinities (Zeno’s Paradoxes, infinite regress), and permutations.
One of the books that has stuck with me over the years is Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922, reprint 1942), not only for its incredibly clear and beautiful writing but also for its emphasis on the impact of the revolution most prominently caused by Isaac Newton, which was later subsumed under the term Scientific Revolution covering the entire 17th century. A consequence of this remarkable period was the so-called Enlightenment that followed in the 18th century and became the soil from which our nation’s founding ideas and documents sprang. Both these centuries have been further optimistically called the Age of Reason.
Our current times, awash in lies, corruption, and such terms as “alternative facts”, have been characterized as an assault on the rationalism and Enlightenment that shaped our founding. Any revisiting of these origins would seem to be a valuable endeavor to see if they still have validity. What makes Becker’s essay particularly relevant to me is the current pervasiveness of the mathematical view of reality that was launched by Newton some 300 years ago. Becker shows how this new way of thinking spread far beyond the bounds of mathematics and engendered a new “natural rights” philosophy that formed the foundation for the Declaration of Independence. Essentially the idea was that if the behavior of the natural world was based on (mathematical) laws, then so must the behavior of man be based on natural laws.
The September 2019 Special Issue of Scientific American is a must read. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, so you should purchase a copy at a store or digitally online. All the articles are fascinating and relevant, and address basic questions of epistemology—how do we know what we know? The first section, “Truth”, is the most pertinent to my thinking, as it covers three subjects I have been pondering for years.
Physical Reality. The first article in the section is “Virtually Reality: How close can physics bring us to a truly fundamental understanding of the world?” by George Musser. I have addressed this issue of physical reality in my article Angular Momentum, with an emphasis on the role of mathematics. Musser cites the difficulties of trying to understand quantum mechanics after almost one hundred years or the failure to marry quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of gravitation as possible indications that there might be limits to our human endeavor to comprehend physical reality. This frustration is not new:
Over the generations, physicists have oscillated between self-assurance and skepticism, periodically giving up on ever finding the deep structure of nature and downgrading physics to the search for scraps of useful knowledge. Pressed by his contemporaries to explain how gravity works, Isaac Newton responded: “I frame no hypotheses.”
I am a regular reader of Ash Jogalekar’s blog Curious Wavefunction, but I found my way to his latest via the eclectic website 3 Quarks Daily, also highly recommended. I could not resist the title, “Mathematics, And The Excellence Of The Life It Brings”. The entirety of the post was about the mathematician Shing-Tung Yau’s recent memoir, The Shape of a Life, but Jogalekar’s introductory remarks about his personal involvement with mathematics stirred so many personal recollections of my own, that I thought I would provide an excerpt, followed by my own comments. Furthermore, he also addresses in passing the perennial question of whether math is invented or discovered.
This is a great posting by the mathematician James Propp on his website Mathematical Enchantments, not only for the main story about his experience as a mathematician at a trial, but also for his short excursion into the idea of definitions in mathematics—basically the same topic I was trying to address in my posts on “A Meditation on ‘Is’ in Mathematics” here and here.
Normally I would excerpt such an article and provide the link to the full article, but given the short half-life of links I have also provided a full PDF copy just in case. You should visit the link to see the comments, which I have not included (Propp is lucky to have some of those). In fact, you should take the opportunity to peruse a number of his articles, if you have not already, which are longer in nature, appear monthly, and provide some great insights into mathematics (his pseudosphere icon is the Beltrami surface, which he discusses elsewhere).
A mathematics friend of mine just sent me this link to a 2017 posting by “recovering mathematician” Junaid Mubeen that I found most apt. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look.
“[M]athematics need not be situated at the extremes of established knowledge. We can all revel in problems whose solutions are known. Even when humankind has exhausted its capacity to extend its collective knowledge base, as individuals our ignorance is what keeps our mathematical instincts aflame. Problem solving lies between the boundaries of what we know and what we seek. This sweet spot is where we all—novices and experts alike—get to bend and twist what we know to forge new truths for ourselves. Who cares if our discoveries are already known to the rest of the world (or machines, for that matter)? The satisfaction of finding my own solution, of pushing through my own knowledge limits, is as enthralling as the pursuit of ‘new’ proofs promised by research mathematics. Let the machines come; mathematics does not belong to the omnipotent.”
In light of subsequent events it may be that being a politician requires its own set of skills, but this praise of his profession of engineering before he became president casts the unfortunate Herbert Hoover in a different light. My father brought this surprising excerpt from Hoover’s autobiography to my attention years ago. I have highlighted the part that is especially insightful. Unfortunately, the balance of the chapter praising an engineer’s involvement in government does not fare as well, given the author, though a subsequent engineer US president, whatever his shortcomings, was never faulted for his honesty and moral rectitude. See the Profession of Engineering.
This 1975 New York Times article by Cyril Stanley Smith left an indelible impression over the years to the point that I wanted to capture it in digital format. I found a 1996 copy online, formatted it more closely to the original article, and found more recent images of the illustrations used in the original article. It is a powerful argument for the benefits of basic research vs. directed research. The pursuit of pure mathematics often is accused of being a product of imagination run rampant with no practical purpose. It is argued that Government expenditures of public moneys for research should be applied more to directed research that has specific practical goals with explicit criteria for success. It has always been difficult to argue otherwise. Smith’s article, however, goes a long way toward a rebuttal, as well as showing the benefits of play and artistic creativity for its own sake. See the Aesthetic Curiosity – The Root of Invention.