Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Math without end, amen

In the comments of a previous post, Commenter J.K. linked to this Discover interview with cosmologist Max Tegmark, "Is the Universe Actually Made of Math?". Worth reading in full, if you are interested in this sort of thing, but here are a few excerpts from the interview that start in media res.

That brings us to the last level: the level IV multiverse intimately tied up with your mathematical universe, the “crackpot idea” you were once warned against. Perhaps we should start there.

I begin with something more basic. You can call it the external reality hypothesis, which is the assumption that there is a reality out there that is independent of us. I think most physicists would agree with this idea.

The question then becomes, what is the nature of this external reality?

If a reality exists independently of us, it must be free from the language that we use to describe it. There should be no human baggage.

I see where you’re heading. Without these descriptors, we’re left with only math.

The physicist Eugene Wigner wrote a famous essay in the 1960s called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” In that essay he asked why nature is so accurately described by mathematics. The question did not start with him. As far back as Pythagoras in the ancient Greek era, there was the idea that the universe was built on mathematics. In the 17th century Galileo eloquently wrote that nature is a “grand book” that is “written in the language of mathematics.” Then, of course, there was the great Greek philosopher Plato, who said the objects of mathematics really exist.

How does your mathematical universe hypothesis fit in?

Well, Galileo and Wigner and lots of other scientists would argue that abstract mathematics “describes” reality. Plato would say that mathematics exists somewhere out there as an ideal reality. I am working in between. I have this sort of crazy-sounding idea that the reason why mathematics is so effective at describing reality is that it is reality. That is the mathematical universe hypothesis: Mathematical things actually exist, and they are actually physical reality.


But why do some equations describe our universe so perfectly and others not so much?

Stephen Hawking once asked it this way: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” If I am right and the cosmos is just mathematics, then no fire-breathing is required. A mathematical structure doesn’t describe a universe, it is a universe. The existence of the level IV multiverse also answers another question that has bothered people for a long time. John Wheeler put it this way: Even if we found equations that describe our universe perfectly, then why these particular equations and not others? The answer is that the other equations govern other, parallel universes, and that our universe has these particular equations because they are just statistically likely, given the distribution of mathematical structures that can support observers like us.


JK said...

Tegmark's personal page at MIT has some more interesting info in it. Sad to see that he got divorced this year from his cosmologist wife. I wonder what career path the kids will choose?

OT to this post, but speaking of MIT, the school offers their course materials online for free now, including many taped lectures. Any ambitious high schoolers out there might want to check it out to see how well they'd handle the coursework of an elite technical university. There's a lot of challenging projects for many of these classes, its pretty neat to browse through them. It's generous of MIT to do this for the public.

DaveinHackensack said...

Too bad about Teg's marriage -- if those two can't make it...

It is nice of MIT to offer their course materials online at no charge. I guess the $40k or whatever in annual tuition is for access to the alumni network.