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PIE # 67 - In Search of the Universal Laws of Nature - The Amazing Interplay Between Theory and Physical Reality

(28.01.2012) Teodor Przymusiński


Humans have always strived to understand the workings of the surrounding world. Initially, they attributed all incomprehensible aspects of the universe to gods and their moods and whims. Only about 2,500 years ago, in ancient Greece, an entirely new approach based on mathematics and the precisely defined notion of a proof was introduced and led to truly revolutionary progress in our understanding of the universe, and to the development of modern science.

In our search for the underlying laws of the universe, an amazing interplay between pure theory and physical reality has been uncovered. It seemed as if mathematics were not just a theoretical construct, a purely human invention, but as if it had a life of its own, in astounding, almost miraculous, harmony with the physical world. Purely theoretical and seemingly esoteric constructs, such as non-Euclidean geometry or the theory of complex numbers, were shown to govern the laws of our universe, while newly discovered physical phenomena led to the introduction and development of new areas of mathematical research (e.g., string theory). In the words of a renowned physicist Roger Penrose: “If the heavens were indeed controlled by the whims of gods, then these gods themselves seemed under the spell of exact mathematical laws”. Similarly, the great Albert Einstein wondered, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” In my presentation, I will try to illustrate, at a very basic level, the nature of this amazing, almost symbiotic, relationship between mathematical theory and the physical world. My lecture was largely inspired by Penrose’s beautiful book The Road to Reality.

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