I’m not a mathematician – I liked the subject at school, but ended up heading down the path of Physics (and in an experimentalist direction). I have though heard a few things about Paul Erdős – the prodigious number of papers, the lack of a non-mathematical social life, Erdős numbers. After reading this book, I know more about him but it’s generally in the same vein: his odd language of slang terms (god = “the supreme fascist”, children = “epsilons”), various anecdotes from friends and colleagues. Actually he does come across as very social (in his awkward way), and with a hefty supply of witticisms to liven things up – quite different from Paul Dirac, to pick another eccentric from the list of biographies I’ve read recently.
The book does feel rather stretched out, setting the scene for his work with lengthy diversions on other mathematicians (GH Hardy, Ronald Graham, Srinivasa Ramanujan). These are interesting enough, but it’s not exactly a heavyweight character study. This is probably for the best. Along with the fact that the mathematics is kept to a minimum (enough to explain the general scope of the various topics, but not enough to feel like work), it feels like a book that I would have enjoyed back at school. It might even have encouraged me to set off in a more mathematical direction – luckily I’m a bit past that now.
I just thought I would link to a couple of classic essays today. These deal with the slightly mind boggling link up between mathematics and physical theories – often we have some sort of (often rough) measurements and a nice, neat mathematical formula that fits them, then the formula will seem to give a “law of nature” that is hugely accurate beyond what we might reasonably expect.
Is this just an artefact of how we use mathematics, or is there really an underlying mathematical structure to the universe? It gets towards something that Steven Weinberg described in the book I read recently – the idea of a Final Theory in physics. I’m not sure where I would come down on this, but they make interesting reading.
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics by Hamming
Most people will probably know that the mathematicians of the Islamic world have played a big part in mathematics as we know it – terms like “algebra” and “algorithm” is a bit of a give away, and the invention of zero is a common bit of trivia. Not as many people may be familiar with the characters and setting behind these inventions or the full extent of their mathematical achievements. These weren’t just abstract creations either, they often had practical uses for both everyday life and for other academic arts. This post is a bit of a deviation from a book (Science & Islam by Ethan Masood) I reviewed in a recent post – I’ve given a bit of a general run through of the general history there if you want to check it out (please do, views are always nice to have), but I’ve tried to keep this post relatively self contained.
Why did they study mathematics? Well, much like anyone else it was a mixture of the practical and the academic. Some of these scientists and philosophers would investigate more and more complicated work for its own sake, but there were also more down to earth reasons. Al-Khwarizmi’s work on algebra was explained as a way to speed up the complicated process of Islamic inheritance, and work on trigonometry was needed for new techniques in navigation and astronomy (okay, maybe that last one is a bit less down to earth). The work was, as with more scientific work, generally funded by a patron or ruler.
Continue reading Post 44: Science & Islam: Mathematics