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RS101 - Max Tegmark on the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis

Release date: February 9, 2014

Max TegmarkThose among us who loathed high school calculus might feel some trepidation at the premise in this week's episode of Rationally Speaking. MIT Physicist Max Tegmark joins us to talk about his book "Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality" in which he explains the controversial argument that everything around us is made of math. Max, Massimo and Julia explore the arguments for such a theory, how it could be tested, and what it even means.

Max's pick: "'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!': Adventures of a Curious Character"


Reader Comments (27)

Wonderful interview! Thanks! And sorry to come so late to the discussion, but I just discovered this website. I hope there’s still some interest in this topic.

I can’t claim to be well educated in these matters, but there are two things that make me feel very uneasy about the idea of the universe fundamentally “being” mathematics. First is a practical concern about the origin and nature of human understanding. Mathematics, after all, does have rather humble and pedestrian beginnings. These walking naked apes whose brains evolved on the savanna, living within a very provincial set of boundary conditions, having absolutely no direct experience with either the macro or micro level processes going on in the universe, learned to count and then developed a system of understanding that just happens to map exactly to the fundamental nature of the universe? What are chances? It feels analogous to trying to derive the general form of the wave equation from the specific equation for a vibrating string. It can’t be done. Some broader and deeper knowledge is required than what the string equation alone can provide. So, if human brains and human understanding are derivative of the fundamental nature of the universe, how in principle can mathematics, an invention of human understanding, be expected to fully encompass that fundamental nature?

My second concern has to do with specificity of physics as well as its imprecision. What I mean is, there are all these constants that pepper the mathematics of physics. The speed of light, the gravitational constant, Plank’s constant and most especially Pi, why are they all there? They seem to be pointing to something fundamental about the nature of the universe, yet they do look rather ugly to me. It’s bad enough that there are these apparently arbitrary numbers plunked down in the middle of what would otherwise be beautifully pure mathematical relations. But the numbers are also irrational. So, the equations of physics are, in practice, imprecise unless the constants are calculated out to an infinite number of decimal places. Now, I personally don’t feel that electrons are in the habit of calculating Pi out to the infinite decimal place as they orbit the nucleus. Therefore, it leads me to suspect that mathematics, our system for describing the universe, somehow misses the mark. The fundamental constants may be red flags pointing to some deep lack in our understanding. Maybe a misunderstanding that we are incapable of overcoming by our very nature?

Am I off base with these concerns?
March 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Barefoot
We do continue to discover mathematical constants and symmetries in physics. It does seem that if this trend continues, we will find that the universe actually does consist entirely of mathematical constructs.

Our species does now have enough power to annihilate ourselves. We do need to improve ourselves and our society or face extinction.
January 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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