A question of philosophy

By CiaraShook

The question “Is God a mathematician?” piqued the interest of students, faculty and the public who packed the Ferguson Auditorium in the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave., on Nov. 4 to explore the answer.

Mario Livio was welcomed to Columbia by an audience who sat shoulder-to-shoulder, some seated on the floor, at his presentation, in which he presented empirical facts about Earth’s connection to the mathematical world and the world of physics.  Livio posed the question of whether mathematics was discovered or invented by man.

Livio, a senior astrophysicist and head of the Office of Public Outreach for the Space Telescope Science Institute, has published works on subjects of astrophysics, cosmology and the emergence of intelligent life.

Azar Khosravani, associate chair of the Science and Mathematics Department, was instrumental in bringing Livio to campus.

“He’s known in his field and he has many books in mathematics,” Khosravani said.

Though Livio packed many concepts of math and the world into an hour-long speech, his down-to-earth personality led to a lively and receptive audience.

“[Livio is] relating ideas that I’ve thought of before, even though he never made a complete argument,” said Erick Frausto, junior audio arts and acoustics major, “but I can see where he was heading: things can be broken down mathematically.”

Livio began his presentation by posing Albert Einstein’s question: how is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of human experience, fits so excellently the objects of physical reality?

“The question is more important than the answer,” Livio said.

Based on the title of the lecture, some members of the audience expected a speech about mathematics and religion, but were pleasantly surprised to learn about the physics of the world.

“He never went so far as to say there’s a spiritual link between it,” Frausto said, “but I think everything could be broken down mathematically.”

Livio’s sense of humor was prevalent in his talk when he explained magnetism in electrons and how physicists calculated its strength to within a few parts per trillion.

“We all know what a trillion is—it’s the size of our deficit,” Livio said.

Livio said Galileo was the first person to categorically state that mathematics was the language of science.

“Philosophy is written in the great book—I mean the universe,” Livio said of Galileo. “To him, the universe is written in the language of mathematics. How did the universe know to be written in a particular language?”

Livio said Sir Isaac Newton formulated a mathematical law about what gravity does and by the 1950s, it was shown to be accurate to better than one part in a million.

“Newton could have had no idea that these laws would hold true,” Livio said. “How is it possible that based on these observations that were not so accurate, Newton was able to formulate a mathematical theory with such precision?”

Livio said that humans are used to mathematics being the most concise aspect of existence.

“‘Is mathematics an invention or a discovery?’ is not a question in mathematics,” Livio said. “It’s a question in philosophy. If mathematics is based on a shaky foundation, how is it possible that we can explain all the explanations with a highly mathematical theory?”

Livio said the question of discovery versus invention is misleading.

“When I ask you, ‘Is mathematics an invention or a discovery?’ in your head, you immediately assume that it has to be one or the other. There are other possibilities,” Livio said.

Livio concluded by saying mathematics is an intricate combination of inventions and discoveries.

“Put very broadly, the concepts were invented and the relations among the concepts were discovered,” Livio said.