Mathematics in Sunflowers
Shubha Bala, associate producer
This week’s show with astrophysicist Mario Livio explores, amongst other things, how math is implicated in the nature of the world. The Nobel physicist and mathematician Eugene Wigner, who wrote "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Science," argued that math is so successful in predicting events in physics that it could not be a coincidence. Even on our previous show, "Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God," the astronomers pointed out the complexity in declaring whether math is discovered or invented.
While producing these interviews, I happened upon the video above. The visualization helped me by filling in some of the specific examples in nature that mathematicians can easily visualize on a daily basis. It shows how three mathematical concepts, including the golden ratio, translate into simple objects in nature.
What I really love is the about page, which deconstructs how the Fibonacci series and golden ratio translate into the spiral of a shell, and the spirals within a sunflower. When listening to Livio, what examples of math explaining the cosmos came to mind for you?
Old School Mystery
Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
In researching some possible future topics for the show, I ran across this documentary video, called Powers of Ten, which is described in the opening credits as “A film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe.” It’s got a 70s era, old school educational filmstrip vibe to it, but it’s also pretty profound in the way it places human beings in relationship to both the universe and elementary particles.
Watching the film reminds me of a seasick gut sensation I used to get as a kid whenever I tried to wrap my mind around the idea (picked up in Sunday school) that God had never been born, but rather God had always existed. Or when I tried to contemplate the idea (probably gleaned from some Carl Sagan show) that the universe had no end, and just goes on and on forever. Or when I would stare out the window on car trips at passing houses and get little glimpses of peoples’ lives through their windows or their back yards. And I would think about how every human being on the planet has a life and a consciousness that is just as rich and complicated as mine, but that I would never know anything about the vast majority of those people; their lives would just continue to go on and on, completely independent of me.
I would lie in bed late at night and think about these things and feel like I was falling. And it occurs to me as I write this that I haven’t had that same visceral reaction to mystery since I was a little kid. It’s hard not to recall those childhood revelations without seeing them as a little dated and contrived, not unlike a low budget 70s era educational filmstrip.