Mathematics can be a subject that’s a bit unrelatable for some. Perhaps you recall sitting in a math class at some point, wondering, “When am I ever going to use quadratic equations?”
But a new book wants us to reconsider math as something that gives us fundamental building blocks for not just the technology we use every day, but also the natural world around us.
That book is called “The Big Bang of Numbers: How to Build the Universe Using Only Math.” Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams recently spoke with author Manil Suri, a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, about his book and what motivated him to write it for the mathematically uninterested.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Manil Suri: Usually math is thought of as something that we invent, perhaps, to explain things around us. I’m kind of reversing this perspective and saying that math is the true driver of the universe, and the universe itself is a model of the mathematical principles. In other words, the universe is an approximation to math.
Kimberly Adams: You know, I can’t help but make the connection between all the new things we’re learning about the universe, with things like the James Webb Space Telescope, and all of this new data and information that we’re getting about the universe and how it works. How does that connect to the story that you’re telling about math?
Suri: A long time ago, a Nobel laureate, Eugene Wigner, pointed out that math has unreasonable effectiveness in describing the universe. When you look at new galaxies, often you find that they have spirals in their structure that follow patterns that are similar to the golden spiral, logarithmic patterns. So you see these patterns in everything. And that is what math is, it’s the study of patterns.
Adams: How might that knowledge that these patterns exist, and knowing what they look like or how they might manifest, how might that help us in this search for the mysteries of the universe, even for life on other planets and how to look for it?
Suri: I think the basic idea that we first have to understand is where these patterns come from, where the math lies. Once you start building math up from its bare bones — that is, start with the numbers and then start building various topics in math — you start seeing how the whole system of math generates questions that then lead to these patterns. So by starting on this journey with math, with some basic assumptions, you start developing a whole structure of a mathematical universe. And then you start comparing it with actual universes that you’re observing. And that’s where you see how these abstract structures actually are reflected in the universe.
Adams: Does the fact that we can offload so much of the calculations side of math to computers now almost create, like, a new opportunity or a new freedom to explore these other more theoretical and maybe even more interesting topics in math?
Suri: Oh, absolutely. Now, of course, you can look at very nonlinear, very large problems involving, let’s say, the climate modeling over the whole Earth. And this is something that is actually trickling down. I also teach a course that is for nonmathematicians. We are looking at the Keeling Curve, for instance. It measures the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and has been doing that since 1958. And technology allows you to do that now. And you can get a much better idea of how the trend is going and use that curve, which is automatically generated, to figure out for instance, what the amount of carbon dioxide will be at the end of the century.
Adams: I think so many people are scared of math. And that may be a reason for them to not want to, you know, dig into this. And I wonder how you address that fear, and what you want people to take away from this book.
Suri: So what I do in this book is, first of all, just in terms of numbers, looking at very simple things like addition and multiplication, what do they mean. I’m actually presenting them as games. And that can help people to really see where these numbers are coming from and what their properties are and what you can do with them. Later on in the in the book, there’s a section on algebra, which of course, you know, is something that really scares people. And what I want to do is make sure that the next time you see an algebraic formula, you might not know exactly why it’s there or what it’s doing exactly, but you will actually know enough about it so that when you see a formula, you will know what its properties are, why people use such formulas and have a general knowledge of what is there and be at peace with it.
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