Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Physical world described by mathematics

Margaret Wertheim writes:
The problem goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Pythagoras, the philosophical giant who dreamed the dream that became modern physics. Pythagoras almost certainly learned his famous theorem about right-angled triangles from the Babylonians, but we owe to him a far greater idea: "All is number," he declared, becoming the first person to say that the physical world could be described by the language of mathematics.

Pythagoras also gave us the idea of the "music of the spheres," a set of mathematical relationships that would describe the structure of the universe itself. His vision would eventually give rise to the scientific revolution led by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. The search for a theory of everything today is the latest version of the ancient Pythagorean quest for divine "cosmic harmonies."

Though many cultures have developed sophisticated mathematical traditions, including the Chinese, the Arabs, the Indians and the Mayans, the West is the one that came to see the material world as an embodiment of mathematical laws. And from the beginning, the search for such laws was viewed as an innately male activity.

The Pythagorean society of the fifth century B.C. was a cradle of mathematical research, but Pythagoreanism was also a religion, and like many Greek cults its beliefs were dualistic. For Pythagoreans, reality consisted of two parts: on one side were the mind and spirit and the transcendent realm of the gods; on the other side were the body and matter and the mundane realm of the earth. Like many Greek thinkers, the Pythagoreans associated the mind/spirit side of reality with maleness and the body/matter side with femaleness.

Pythagoras introduced numbers into this mix and put them on the male side of the ledger. In the Pythagorean system, thinking about numbers, or doing mathematics, was an inherently masculine task. Mathematics was associated with the gods, and with transcendence from the material world; women, by their nature, were supposedly rooted in this latter, baser realm.

At the end of the Middle Ages, Pythagorean interest in a mathematical approach to science began to gain ground, and it is here that we begin to see the seeds of modern physics.
That's right, the ancient Greeks understood the importance of Mathematics.

Wertheim goes on to argue that this is all somehow unfair to women:
Emmy Noether, who discovered that all physical conservation laws were associated with mathematical symmetries, was a contemporary to Einstein and helped work out some of the math of general relativity. She did so without a formal academic position and mostly without pay.
I guess she is suggesting that Einstein was treated better because he was a man. But Einstein invented special relativity, E = mc2, and a quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect, all without a formal academic position. Even after this Nobel-Prize-winning work, it still took him several years to get a paying academic job. Maybe it took Noether a couple of extra years to get a paying academic job, but the example is not convincing. Both Noether and Einstein fled the Nazis in 1933.

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