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.
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.”
This post continues a meditation on the nature of mathematics begun in Part I. It involves the perennial question about whether mathematics is invented or discovered, and consequently evokes questions about mathematical reality. This subject is probably of little interest to most people, and even most mathematicians. But the extremely heavy involvement of mathematics in the descriptions of quantum mechanics, and the even more mathematically abstruse excursions into ideas such as string theory in an effort to wed quantum mechanics to general relativity, force us to confront the central place mathematics has in “explaining” our physical reality. Of course, this essay has no definitive answers, and leaves the situation as a mystery. See Meditation on “Is” in Mathematics II – Mathematical Reality.
This post is the first on a meditation on the nature of mathematics as I see it. I have been thinking about this for some time, and my thoughts were again stimulated by a March 2014 article I read in Slate by Brian Palmer that attempted a popularized explanation of the mathematical concepts associated with Zeno’s Paradox. It was a laudable effort that I applaud. So it is a bit churlish of me to critique it, but I felt its misconceptions got at the heart of some fundamental ideas about mathematics that I wanted to clarify.
The key idea exemplified in this article is the role “making it up” plays in math. That is, the general impression seems to be that math is dealing with things as they actually are if we can just be brought to see it. Whereas the idea that mathematicians make things up or define things is given little credence. For example, 0 x 2 “is” 0 doesn’t make any sense if you arrive at multiplication inductively from the intuitive idea of its being repeated addition. That is, 2 x 0 = 0 + 0 = 0 makes sense, but 0 x 2 = 0 does not. So mathematicians just say let’s define 0 x 2 = 0. If we do, it will be consistent with the other rules we have abstracted from the repeated addition idea, such as the commutative and distributive rules – that is, nothing breaks. (Try defining 0 x 2 to be any other number than 0 and see what breaks.) To put it another way, the reason we want to have 0 x 2 = 0 is for a different reason than we originally thought was meant by multiplication. We have extended the original idea into new territory. A similar thing happens with the advent of negative numbers. This is a very sophisticated idea and a challenge to present at an elementary stage.
Probably the most satisfying article I have put together is a recent one on point set topology. An old friend of mine, who studied math and physics in college but ended up getting a doctorate in English, asked me, what was topology? Knowing that there were two main branches of topology (general or point set topology and algebraic topology), I chose to describe point set topology first, especially since it was what I was most familiar with and had worked with most in my graduate work.
The essay turned out to have a surprising structure more like a musical theme and variations. The theme was the geometric series. I found it to be a wonderful medium to show the evolution of ideas (acting as variations) from the early Greeks (Zeno’s Paradoxes) through the development of calculus, decimal expansions of real numbers, to power series, metric spaces, and finally general topologies.
There was an additional benefit to this series of transformations of an initial idea: one of the major aspects of true mathematics became evident, namely, the extension of an idea into new territories that reveal unexpected connections to other forms of mathematics. Treating complicated functions as points in a topological space was a wonderful idea developed over the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and became the basis of the field of functional analysis. See Point Set Topology.