Mathematics is one of the earliest sciences. As the expression of intangible thoughts, mathematics can also be considered an art form like painting or music. From this perspective, the possible use of a developed mathematical theory outside mathematics does not really matter. Interestingly, these statements, theorems, and theories easily find their way into applications of natural sciences, which also represent the material side of universe. For instance, some of the mathematical theorems that are used by physicists have been developed by mathematicians way in advance. This helps physicists a lot, facilitating the evaluation and formulation of their work, and earning them valuable time towards reaching their goals. Eugene Wigner expresses his feelings regarding this wonderful cooperation of physics and mathematics as: “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”
Concepts like the number zero, negative numbers, complex numbers, matrices, and spatial geometry are inventions of mathematicians which were studied earlier and presented especially for the use of physicists. When mathematicians theorized the “Group Theory,” they were reported to have said, “Finally we have developed something that physicists cannot use.” However, this theory, which stemmed from intangible algebra, was found to be useful in investigating the symmetry of physical systems and had serious applications in particle physics.
If there were no mathematical advances, would physics and other sciences have developed as far as they have? What does it mean that sciences are found in such an interrelated state, and thus support each other?
The perfect relationship between physics and mathematics, as in the expression of many physical laws via simple mathematical equations, is truly amazing. The laws that describe the physical world – from equations expressing the laws of motion (like X=V.t, V=a.t, F=m.a h= (gt2)/2), to basic electrical equations (like V=I.R, P=I.V, E=V/d), going all the way to the equations that define gravitational forces and the expansion of the universe (like F=G.m1.m2/d2, V=H.d) – can easily be expressed through mathematics. Furthermore, this simplicity and plainness in creation of the universe fascinates many scientists. Einstein expressed this fascination when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
One of the most important relations between mathematics and physics is that the independent study of intangible works of mathematics unexpectedly became one of the best tools to describe the physical world. Numbers, for example, are one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Humans have used them to quantify their properties. For thousands of years, people used numbers, but then the concept of negative numbers developed for seemingly no reason. For centuries, negative numbers were seen as nonsense. Of course there is not a square with a negative side length, a circle with a negative value area, or a classroom with negative number of students. However, negative numbers were found to be applicable in many areas of physics; they are now accepted as being as real as positive numbers. For instance, it is almost impossible to graph position-time, speed-time, acceleration-time, and the momentum-speed relation of objects without negative numbers.
Ellipses, parabolas, and hyperbolas (plane sections of cones cut in different shapes) were studied by Apollonius (BC 262-200), who was a contemporary of Archimedes. Interestingly these shapes were one day used by Kepler and Newton to describe the orbits of heavenly bodies like planets. Three dimensional pentagonal and hexagonal patterns, like those on the surface of a soccer ball, were also investigated by Archimedes. This shape has been found to be in exact configuration of a special carbon molecule composed of 60 atoms.
Likewise, the number zero, which was introduced by Muhammad bin Ahmad, in 967, led to many innovations in mathematics, as well as physics. Did al-Khwarizmi (780-850) know, when he found and utilized 1st and 2nd degree equations, that he was working on something mathematicians and physicists could one day never do without?
Imaginary numbers, as proposed against the main principles of arithmetic, also provides a very good example for this topic. We cannot think of a number whose square is negative in normal conditions. In other words, when a number is multiplied with itself, the resulting number is always a positive number. But mathematicians thought of a number that is negative when squared and continued various studies accordingly. Again, these studies have proven to be an important tool, especially in understanding electrical circuits by physicists.
Let’s finish our examples with ones from modern physics. Riemann (1826) was a mathematician who studied spatial geometry and proposed the concept of space curves. Mathematical equations designed by Riemann, pertaining to spatial geometry, were used by Einstein in 1908 to describe and formulate the concept of general relativity. Einstein also used Minkowski’s four dimensional geo-spatial continuum when developing his theory of general relativity.
There are many more examples. The famous Russian mathematician Friedman established a mathematical model that allows the expansion of the universe by improving Einstein’s model of universal geometry. This model was also later confirmed by the physicist De Sitter in discovering universal expansion and by Hubble in formulating the expansion. In addition, well before the discovery of quantum mechanics, Davit Hilbert proposed the complex vector space with a very different mathematical purpose known as “Hilbert Space.” This concept of space with an infinite number of dimensions is today used by quantum mechanics.
Sometimes physical realities can be foreseen via these invented equations. For example, Dirac proposed the existence of a particle known as the positron (or as we call it, the twin of the electron; it just differs by the charge) through his mathematical equation that he wrote in 1928. Four years later this particle was discovered by Carl D. Anderson, as predicted. To name, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), a famous physicist and mathematician, predicted the presence and speed of electromagnetic waves mathematically via his own equations. Later, these waves were detected by Hertz (1886) through experiments. Again, Maxwell calculated the speed of electromagnetic waves via his equations, and by revealing that it was equal to the speed of light, it was understood that light was also a type of electromagnetic wave. Nowadays, the particle called the “graviton,” which is supposed to be in charge of gravitational forces, and the “Higgs” particle, that theoretically fills space according to quantum theory, are waiting to be discovered.
The book of nature is written in such a way that it is expressible by mathematical language. Famous physicist Sir James Jeans (d. 1946) expressed this situation as follows: “From the intrinsic evidence of his creation, the Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematician.” Yes, the level of knowledge that is at play in the universe encompasses both physics and mathematics. The overall interconnectedness of sciences and the interdisciplinary character physics and mathematics point to an owner of this knowledge.
As a conclusion we can deduce that physics and mathematics, just like material and non-material worlds, are in fact intertwined with each other’s various dimensions. The physical face of the universe is the place where records are kept and concepts of matter like heavy or light, big or small, and soft or hard, exist. The mathematical face of the universe (as if spiritual) is the unseen side of events or materials that are hidden and intangible. In a way, this relation between physics and mathematics is a display of the material and spiritual sides of universe.
Nuri Balta is the Head of Physics department at Samanyolu Schools in Turkey. He is also pursuing a PhD degree in Physics at Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.