Friday, May 08, 2015

Just a new name

Most mathematicians are platonists; they typically believe they were discovering mathematics rather than creating it. Math exists whether the mathematician finds it or not. That's been my experience, anyway, and I'm told that an overwhelming fraction of mathematicians say the same.

If I mention Plato's Forms to people they generally react along the lines of "They used to believe weird stuff back then."

But ever since Emmy Noether at least, studying symmetries and invariants has been one of the keys to theoretical physics. I recently read a take-down of the purported EM drive that relied almost entirely on the equations and the symmetries.

The equations are seen as the important thing, the fundamental thing. The individual instances of atoms aren't as important as the Form behind them. Abstractions matter more to us.

That's not obviously either good or bad. Certainly it's bad if it's wrong and the Form is central to your life (an idol).


Texan99 said...

Idolatry aside, the practical problem I see is in letting assumed Forms blind us to facts. Like you, I suppose I take the Platonic view that the Forms really exist, and that much of what we see is a distorted or approximate reflection of them. The danger there, though, is in assuming we have the straight dope on the Forms, if we means we kid ourselves about the concrete facts we encounter.

Not that I claim to understand the EM drive, but I'm much more comfortable with an explanation that its anomalies were discovered equally present where the mechanism wasn't set up to produce them, which suggests a systematic measuring error, than I am with the idea that the EM drive can't work because it violates a formula we assumed was inviolate.

james said...

I got itchy with the persistent appeals to formula, rather than what the formula represents: a mountain of observations.
Some of the "EM drive" explanation sounded kind of weird: "pressing against a vacuum" kinds of arguments. If that were possible you're just as likely to get a pull as a push; cancels.