The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

· Atheism

This is the title of a very famous article in mathematics by Eugene Wigner.

The article and its title reminds me of the verses of the Holy Quran that Dr. Abdus Salam mentioned, during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1979:

Blessed is He (Allah) in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things; … Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again: Seest thou any flaw? Aye, look again, and yet again, thy sight will only return unto thee confused and fatigued.  (67:2-5)

Some insights from Wikipedia about this article:

Wigner begins his paper with the belief, common to all those familiar with mathematics, that mathematical concepts have applicability far beyond the context in which they were originally developed. Based on his experience, he says “it is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena.” He then invokes the fundamental law of gravitation as an example. Originally used to model freely falling bodies on the surface of the earth, this law was extended on the basis of what Wigner terms “very scanty observations” to describe the motion of the planets, where it “has proved accurate beyond all reasonable expectations.”

Another oft-cited example is Maxwell’s equations, derived to model the elementary electrical and magnetic phenomena known as of the mid 19th century. These equations also describe radio waves, discovered by Heinrich Hertz in 1887 a few years after Maxwell’s death. Wigner sums up his argument by saying that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.” He concludes his paper with the same question with which he began:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Here is how the article starts:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty, a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.

–BERTRAND RUSSELL, Study of Mathematics

THERE IS A story about two friends, who were classmates in high school, talking about their jobs. One of them became a statistician and was working on population trends. He showed a reprint to his former classmate. The reprint started, as usual, with the Gaussian distribution and the statistician explained to his former classmate the meaning of the symbols for the actual population, for the average population, and so on. His classmate was a bit incredulous and was not quite sure whether the statistician was pulling his leg. “How can you know that?” was his query. “And what is this symbol here?” “Oh,” said the statistician, “this is pi.” “What is that?” “The ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter.” “Well, now you are pushing your joke too far,” said the classmate, “surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle.”

Naturally, we are inclined to smile about the simplicity of the classmate’s approach. Nevertheless, when I heard this story, I had to admit to an eerie feeling because, surely, the reaction of the classmate betrayed only plain common sense. I was even more confused when, not many days later, someone came to me and expressed his bewilderment [1 The remark to be quoted was made by F. Werner when he was a student in Princeton.] with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data on which we test our theories. “How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?” It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.

The preceding two stories illustrate the two main points which are the subjects of the present discourse. The first point is that mathematical concepts turn up in entirely unexpected connections. Moreover, they often permit an unexpectedly close and accurate description of the phenomena in these connections. Secondly, just because of this circumstance, and because we do not understand the reasons of their usefulness, we cannot know whether a theory formulated in terms of mathematical concepts is uniquely appropriate. We are in a position similar to that of a man who was provided with a bunch of keys and who, having to open several doors in succession, always hit on the right key on the first or second trial. He became skeptical concerning the uniqueness of the coordination between keys and doors.

Most of what will be said on these questions will not be new; it has probably occurred to most scientists in one form or another. My principal aim is to illuminate it from several sides. The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. In order to establish the first point, that mathematics plays an unreasonably important role in physics, it will be useful to say a few words on the question, “What is mathematics?”, then, “What is physics?”, then, how mathematics enters physical theories, and last, why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling. Much less will be said on the second point: the uniqueness of the theories of physics. A proper answer to this question would require elaborate experimental and theoretical work which has not been undertaken to date.

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