It has long been a mystery why pure math can reveal so much about the nature of the physical world.
Antimatter was discovered in Paul Dirac’s equations before being detected in cosmic rays. Quarks appeared in symbols sketched out on a napkin by Murray Gell-Mann several years before they were confirmed experimentally. Einstein’s equations for gravity suggested the universe was expanding a decade before Edwin Hubble provided the proof. Einstein’s math also predicted gravitational waves a full century before behemoth apparatuses detected those waves (which were produced by collisions of black holes — also first inferred from Einstein’s math).Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner alluded to math’s mysterious power as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.” Somehow, Wigner said, math devised to explain known phenomena contains clues to phenomena not yet experienced — the math gives more out than was put in. “The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and … there is no rational explanation for it,” Wigner wrote in 1960.
But maybe there’s a new clue to what that explanation might be. Perhaps math’s peculiar power to describe the physical world has something to do with the fact that the physical world also has something to say about mathematics.At least that’s a conceivable implication of a new paper that has startled the interrelated worlds of math, computer science and quantum physics.Everybody involved has long known that some math problems are too hard to solve (at least without unlimited time), but a proposed solution could be rather easily verified. Suppose someone claims to have the answer to such a very hard problem. Their proof is much too long to check line by line. Can you verify the answer merely by asking that person (the “prover”) some questions? Sometimes, yes. But for very complicated proofs, probably not. If there are two provers, though, both in possession of the proof, asking each of them some questions might allow you to verify that the proof is correct (at least with very high probability). There’s a catch, though — the provers must be kept separate, so they can’t communicate and therefore collude on how to answer your questions. (This approach is called MIP, for multiprover interactive proof.)On another level, the new work raises an interesting point about the relationship between math and the physical world. The existence of quantum entanglement, a (surprising) physical phenomenon, somehow allows mathematicians to solve problems that seem to be strictly mathematical. Wondering why physics helps out math might be just as entertaining as contemplating math’s unreasonable effectiveness in helping out physics. Maybe even one will someday explain the other.