Some of the biggest philosophical and ethical questions of this century may be raised on scientific frontiers — as we gain a better understanding of the deep structure of space and time and the wilder “microworld.” Astrophysicist Martin Rees paints a fascinating picture of how we might be changed by what we do not yet know:
"If science teaches me anything, it teaches me that even simple things like an atom are fairly hard to understand. And that makes me skeptical of anyone who claims to have the last word or complete understanding of any deep aspect of reality."
Calvin and Hobbes: Math Is a Religion
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For those who can’t easily read the word bubbles, a transcript:
Calvin: You know, I don’t think math is a science. I think it’s a religion.
Hobbes: A religion?
Calvin: Yeah. All these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one new number! No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don’t.
Calvin: This whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith! It’s a religion!
Hobbes: And in the public schools no less. Call a lawyer.
Calvin: As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.
"On Truth and Beauty"
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
When we originally released our program with physicist and novelist Janna Levin, we included a short clip of a conversation from Seed magazine (a great science publication that recently featured Andy’s Art Shanty Project). Now that we’re rebroadcasting an updated version of "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth," we thought it was a good time to feature the complete salon with acclaimed fiction writer Jonathan Lethem and Ms. Levin from March 2007. They discuss the importance of truth in their art and the impurity of metaphor — and therein lies elegance and beauty. Enjoy.
The Ineluctable Modality of Numbers
by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).
What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth" when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”