by Tanya Lewis
January 30, 2014
MIT cosmologist Max
believes the universe
is a mathematical structure.
Scientists have long used
mathematics to describe the physical properties of the universe. But
what if the universe itself is math? That's what cosmologist Max
In Tegmark's view, everything in the universe - humans included - is
part of a mathematical structure. All matter is made up of
particles, which have properties such as charge and spin, but these
properties are purely mathematical, he says.
And space itself has properties such as
dimensions, but is still ultimately a mathematical structure.
"If you accept the idea that both
space itself, and all the stuff in space, have no properties at
all except mathematical properties," then the idea that
everything is mathematical "starts to sound a little bit less
insane," Tegmark said in a talk given January 15, here at The
The talk was based on his book 'Our
Mathematical Universe - My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of
"If my idea is wrong, physics is
ultimately doomed," Tegmark said.
But if the universe really is
mathematics, he added,
"There's nothing we can't, in
Nature is full
The idea follows the observation that nature is full of patterns,
the Fibonacci sequence, a series of
numbers in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers.
The flowering of an artichoke follows
this sequence, for example, with the distance between each petal and
the next matching the ratio of the numbers in the sequence.
The nonliving world also behaves in a mathematical way. If you throw
a baseball in the air, it follows a roughly parabolic trajectory.
Planets and other astrophysical bodies
follow elliptical orbits.
"There's an elegant simplicity and
beauty in nature revealed by mathematical patterns and shapes,
which our minds have been able to figure out," said Tegmark, who
loves math so much he has framed pictures of famous equations in
his living room.
One consequence of the mathematical
nature of the universe is that scientists could in theory predict
every observation or measurement in physics.
Tegmark pointed out that mathematics
predicted the existence of,
Some people argue that math is just a
tool invented by scientists to explain the natural world. But
Tegmark contends the mathematical structure found in the natural
world shows that math exists in reality, not just in the human mind.
And speaking of the human mind, could we use math to explain the
Some have described the human brain as the most complex structure in
the universe. Indeed, the human mind has made possible all of the
great leaps in understanding our world.
Someday, Tegmark said, scientists will probably be able to describe
even consciousness using math.
(Carl Sagan is quoted as having
said, "the brain is a very big place, in a very small space.")
"Consciousness is probably the way information feels when it's
being processed in certain, very complicated ways," Tegmark
He pointed out that many great
breakthroughs in physics have involved unifying two things once
thought to be separate: energy and matter, space and time,
electricity and magnetism.
He said he suspects the mind, which is
the feeling of a conscious self, will ultimately be unified with the
body, which is a collection of moving particles.
But if the brain is just math, does that mean free will doesn't
exist, because the movements of particles could be calculated using
equations? Not necessarily, he said.
One way to think of it is, if a computer tried to simulate what a
person will do, the computation would take at least the same amount
of time as performing the action. So some people have suggested
defining free will as an inability to predict what one is going to
do before the event occurs.
But that doesn't mean humans are powerless.
Tegmark concluded his talk with a call
"Humans have the power not only to
understand our world, but to shape and improve it."