Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is God a Mathematician?

Disclaimer 1: This is a quasi-serious post, so please, if you're going to laugh, at least snigger quietly.
Disclaimer 2: When I wrote God, and I wrote it with a capital G, I do not mean to impose any kind of religion, monotheistic or otherwise on anybody, nor to portray my opinion on the subject in any form or fashion. For the purposes of this post 'God' is a codeword for "whatever the hell made the universe and makes it run the way it does". You can think of it as the great cow AuĂ°umbla licking the primordial ice away or some infinitesimally small nugget of energy that randomly explodes, it doesn't matter.

I just came back from a very interesting talk by Professor Mario Livio with the above title, discussing his book of the same name. I would like to share a few thoughts I had on the subject.
I suppose that I should first describe what the talk was about.
To sum it up in one sentence, which hardly does the author credit, one could say: The incredible ability that we have to make mathematical predictions of the real world, and to describe the world in mathematical equations to such a staggering degree of finesse can hardly be a coincidence, can it?
He went on further to say, and here we come to my first thought on the subject, that the question is more important than the answer.
Let's consider the ramifications of the question.
First of all, we are assuming the existence of God, something that created the universe (the Steady State theory was debunked, get over it people) and made some sort of rules or laws by which God will govern the universe, or the universe will govern itself. This in itself is mind blowing, but certainly must be the product of rational thought.
Can all the coincidences we see in nature really be just that, coincidences? Physicists base most of their science on the fact that physics here is exactly the same as physics elsewhere. Can that be a coincidence? Surely something designed it that way? But here I start sliding down a slippery slope that I do not want to slide down (see Disclaimer 2) so I will leave that one as a question. And the importance of the question is that we are questioning the source of our knowledge and understanding. W are questioning the main fundamental tool that we use to explore our universe, mathematics. Did we make it up? Are we simply observing known rules? Why is it that mathematics seems to work?
These are questions to which I don't have an answer, and perhaps nobody does. We must ponder them ourselves.
My second thought on the subject was that the professor tried to show how mathematics are both an invention, a product of human thought, and a discovery, a product of human observation.
He gave the example of the Golden Ratio. Now, Euclid is often credited with inventing the golden ratio, perhaps because his is the first example of a publication containing said ratio.
Basically, what it means is that if you divide a section, a line just so then the ration between the smaller part and the larger part is exactly equal to the ratio between the larger part and the whole line. This is an invention. There are an infinite amount of ways to divide a line, Euclid picked one.
Another invention is the Fibonacci sequence. We all know what that is. There are an infinite amount of sequences one can make, but the ancient mathematicians chose to focus on this one.
The fact that the Sequence converges to the Golden Ratio is a discovery. Nobody planned it that way. Two seemingly unrelated products of human thought are linked through a seemingly random connection, that is nonetheless true and intriguing, and to some extent beautiful.
In my studies I have often marveled at the magnificence and beauty of some of the equations that we learned. The fact that a complex motion like a football flying through the air describing an arc, and spinning around its axis can be described in 2 very simple equations is incredible.
I found myself often wondering how these brilliant people came up with this stuff.
Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus at roughly the same time. Two people, geographically separated working on seperate problems came up with the same thing. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the fact that calculus then became the single most widely used tool in any discipline only adds to the incredulity.
Maybe there is a divine being out there, who wants to be understood. Maybe we as humanity are taking baby steps toward understanding how this divine being works. Maybe we will discover that the entire universe is this divine being, and that the whole purpose of our existence is to strive for understanding.
I don't know, but it gives me the impetus I need to broaden my horizons, to search for knowledge, to try to slacken that unquenchable thirst that we seem to have for knowledge. To try to understand everything.
And the last thought I would like to share with you on the subject came when the lecture was over and I stood up to leave. It was then that I noticed that the seat I had been sitting in for the past hour and half was seat No. 42.