Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Sunday, 9 August 2009

A momentary indulgence

It’s a turn-off, I know, but I need to write something about maths. Wrestle with it. I can’t do maths but I have a probably unjustified feeling I dimly understand its broader contours. Whatever, I am drawn to it unlike other seemingly impenetrable subjects like voodoo, haute cuisine and chess.

Fearful of bidding my readership goodbye let me invoke a 1960 article by the physicist Wigner called "The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences". It starts with a truism – that physics has a mathematical structure. But then comes the rather more startling point: equations decribing relationships in physics often contain pointers about the way physics may develop in the future. I find this fascinating.

Lazy people like me have often referred to maths as a language, a way of saying something precisely and rigorously. It is of course but it’s much more. There is a case for saying that the maths of physics is physics. For Wigner adds that in some cases these so-called pointers to the future are far from airy-fairy; they may be regarded as empirical (ie, susceptible to development by observation, experience and experiment).

There are many examples but the classic one is the work done by Maxwell on elementary electrical and magnetic phenomena in the mid-19th century. His equations also describe radio waves which were discovered by Hertz in 1887 a few years after Maxwell’s death. And radio waves are at the heart of the later physics we all love and are totally baffled by. Hey, doesn’t this sort of stuff leave astrology bobbling about in its wake?

Sorry about that. Regard it as an aberration.


Plutarch said...

Not a turn-off at all, when you consider that beings from elsewhere in the universe might understand little of our world but that we would probably have maths in common with them. Physics, too, but there are things which we don't know about physics and things about physics that they might not know either.

The Crow said...

Like Joe said, not a turn-off, in any way shape or form. Mathematics and all the sciences are fascinating subjects of discourse for me. Don't understand nearly as much of it as I'd like, but there you go.

Consider the possibility that the strings in string theory are just the universe's DNA, only blown apart. Consider that we humans might hold the key to explaining the universe, not because we're so smart, but because there is something in our construction that hold our "strings" together, that is missing in the cosmos.

I'd like to understand quantum mechanics so that I could find the answer to those suppositions - even if they do sound loony.

:) (Okay, Joe, here's another veification word for you to define - I love your definitions, by the way, most especially the one for pootsing - 'quitor'. Is it a musical instrument?)

marja-leena said...

I used to be very good at math in high school but those cells have long rusted from lack of use. Though I have been surrounded by math and physics types, with quantum mechanics tossed into a discussion now and then. As I understand it in the big picture, pretty heady stuff.

Rouchswalwe said...

The world of numbers now in my adult life is sort of like the world of boys was when I was younger ~ don't understand it but there is something there I want to work towards understanding. I get my math fix in two ways: baseball statistics and ale brewing. But I would like to understand more about chaos theory and have an introductory book lying on my night table.

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: And even before the onset of Little Green Men, maths allows us to speak to Earthlings who don't speak English.

The Crow: You don't have to understand it all (Who could?). Only be vaguely aware of its potential. Quitor - a Viennese stiletto with which one can effect someone's quietus.

M-L: You're in a privileged position, a possible link between art and maths.

Zu Schwer: To be on the fringe is enough for under-educated slobs like me. And oh the thrill of ERAs, the longest consecutive sequence of games with a safe hit, and why I'll always think Hank Aaron and not Bobby Bonds. By the way, when you crack chaos let me know.