(Vesoul 1824-1904 Paris)
Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem, nd
oil on canvas
Scientists have long used mathematics to describe the physical properties of the universe. But what if the universe itself is math? That’s what cosmologist Max Tegmark believes.
In Tegmark’s view, everything in the universe — humans included — is part of a mathematical structure. All matter is made up of particles, which have properties such as charge and spin, but these properties are purely mathematical, he says. And space itself has properties such as dimensions, but is still ultimately a mathematical structure.
"If you accept the idea that both space itself, and all the stuff in space, have no properties at all except mathematical properties," then the idea that everything is mathematical "starts to sound a little bit less insane," Tegmark said in a talk given Jan. 15 here at The Bell House. The talk was based on his book "Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality" (Knopf, 2014).
Nature is full of math
The idea follows the observation that nature is full of patterns, such as the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. The flowering of an artichoke follows this sequence, for example, with the distance between each petal and the next matching the ratio of the numbers in the sequence.
The nonliving world also behaves in a mathematical way. If you throw a baseball in the air, it follows a roughly parabolic trajectory. Planets and other astrophysical bodies follow elliptical orbits.
"There’s an elegant simplicity and beauty in nature revealed by mathematical patterns and shapes, which our minds have been able to figure out," said Tegmark, who loves math so much he has framed pictures of famous equations in his living room.
One consequence of the mathematical nature of the universe is that scientists could in theory predict every observation or measurement in physics. Tegmark pointed out that mathematics predicted the existence of the planet Neptune, radio waves and the Higgs boson particle thought to explain how other particles get their mass.
Some people argue that math is just a tool invented by scientists to explain the natural world. But Tegmark contends the mathematical structure found in the natural world shows that math exists in reality, not just in the human mind.
And speaking of the human mind, could we use math to explain the brain?
Mathematics of consciousness
Some have described the human brain as the most complex structure in the universe. Indeed, the human mind has made possible all of the great leaps in understanding our world.
Someday, Tegmark said, scientists will probably be able to describe even consciousness using math. (Carl Sagan is quoted as having said, "the brain is a very big place, in a very small space.")
"Consciousness is probably the way information feels when it’s being processed in certain, very complicated ways," Tegmark said. He pointed out that many great breakthroughs in physics have involved unifying two things once thought to be separate: energy and matter, space and time, electricity and magnetism. He said he suspects the mind, which is the feeling of a conscious self, will ultimately be unified with the body, which is a collection of moving particles.
But if the brain is just math, does that mean free will doesn’t exist, because the movements of particles could be calculated using equations? Not necessarily, he said.
One way to think of it is, if a computer tried to simulate what a person will do, the computation would take at least the same amount of time as performing the action. So some people have suggested defining free will as an inability to predict what one is going to do before the event occurs.
But that doesn’t mean humans are powerless. Tegmark concluded his talk with a call to action: "Humans have the power not only to understand our world, but to shape and improve it."
We’ve seen a lot of information explaining the wonders of astronomy and space, but what of the mysteries? The realm scientists have yet to fully understand. SPACE has this awesome article getting into a few, 8 in total, of those very areas in the study of the stars that continue to baffle scientists:
The universe has been around for roughly 13.7 billion years, but it still holds many mysteries that continue to perplex astronomers to this day. Ranging from dark energy to cosmic rays to the uniqueness of our own solar system, there is no shortage of cosmic oddities.
The journal Science summarized some of the most bewildering questions being asked by leading astronomers today. In no particular order, here are eight of the most enduring mysteries in astronomy:
8 What is Dark Energy?
Dark energy is thought to be the enigmatic force that is pulling the cosmos apart at ever-increasing speeds, and is used by astronomers to explain the universe’s accelerated expansion.
This elusive force has yet to be directly detected, but dark energy is thought to make up roughly 73 percent of the universe.
7 How Hot is Dark Matter?
Dark matter is an invisible mass that is thought to make up about 23 percent of the universe. Dark matter has mass but cannot be seen, so scientists infer its presence based on the gravitational pull it exerts on regular matter.
Researchers remain curious about the properties of dark matter, such as whether it is icy cold as many theories predict, or if it is warmer.
6 Where are the Missing Baryons?
Dark energy and dark matter combine to occupy approximately 95 percent of the universe, with regular matter making up the remaining 5 percent. But, researchers have been puzzled to find that more than half of this regular matter is missing.
This missing matter is called baryonic matter, and it is composed of particles such as protons and electrons that make up majority of the mass of the universe’s visible matter.
Some astrophysicists suspect that missing baryonic matter may be found between galaxies, in material known as warm-hot intergalactic medium, but the universe’s missing baryons remain a hotly debated topic.
5 How do Stars Explode?
When massive stars run out of fuel, they end their lives in gigantic explosions called supernovas. These spectacular blasts are so bright they can briefly outshine entire galaxies.
Extensive research and modern technologies have illuminated many details about supernovas, but how these massive explosions occur is still a mystery.
Scientists are keen to understand the mechanics of these stellar blasts, including what happens inside a star before it ignites as a supernova.
4 What Re-ionized the Universe?
The broadly accepted Big Bang model for the origin of the universe states that the cosmos began as a hot, dense point approximately 13.7 billion years ago.
The early universe is thought to have been a dynamic place, and about 13 billion years ago, it underwent a so-called age of re-ionization. During this period, the universe’s fog of hydrogen gas was clearing and becoming translucent to ultraviolet light for the first time.
Scientists have long been puzzled over what caused this re-ionization to occur.
3 What’s the Source of the Most Energetic Cosmic Rays?
Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles that flow into our solar system from deep in outer space, but the actual origin of these charged subatomic particles has perplexed astronomers for about a century.
The most energetic cosmic rays are extraordinarily strong, with energies up to 100 million times greater than particles that have been produced in manmade colliders. Over the years, astronomers have attempted to explain where cosmic rays originate before flowing into the solar system, but their source has proven to be an enduring astronomical mystery.
2 Why is the Solar System so Bizarre?
As alien planets around other stars are discovered, astronomers have tried to tackle and understand how our own solar system came to be.
The differences in the planets within our solar system have no easy explanation, and scientists are studying how planets are formed in hopes of better grasping the unique characteristics of our solar system.
This research could, in fact, get a boost from the hung for alien worlds, some astronomers have said, particularly if patterns arise in their observations of extrasolar planetary systems.
1 Why is the Sun’s Corona so Hot?
The sun’s corona is its ultra-hot outer atmosphere, where temperatures can reach up to a staggering 10.8 million degrees Fahrenheit (6 million degrees Celsius).
Solar physicists have been puzzled by how the sun reheats its corona, but research points to a link between energy beneath the visible surface, and processes in the sun’s magnetic field. But, the detailed mechanics behind coronal heating are still unknown.
Leptis Magna, Libya: Founded approx. 1000 B.C., enlarged and embellished by Septimius Severus in 193, who was born there and later became emperor. It was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire, with its imposing public monuments, harbour, market-place, storehouses, shops and residential districts. (via UNESCO)