Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.

Education and “The Three-Body Problem”

The brilliant math-watcher, Ian Stewart, says of this classic physics problem, the Three-Body Problem:

Newton’s Law of Gravity runs into problems with three bodies (earth, moon, sun, say).

In particular, the gravitational interaction of a mere three bodies, assumed to obey Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, stumped the mathematical world for centuries.

It still does, if what you want is a nice formula for the orbits of those bodies. In fact, we now know that three-body dynamics is chaotic–so irregular that is has elements of randomness.

There is no tidy geometric characterization of three-body orbits, not even a formula in coordinate geometry.

Until the late nineteenth century, very little was known about the motion of three celestial bodies, even if one of them were so tiny that its mass could be ignored.

(Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems, Ian Stewart, Basic Books, 2014, page 136)

Henri Poincaré, the great mathematician, wrestled with this with tremendous intricacy and ingenuity all his life:

Jules Henri Poincaré was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and philosopher of science. He is often described as a polymath, and in mathematics as “The Last Universalist,” since he excelled in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime.

Born: April 29, 1854, Nancy, France
Died: July 17, 1912, Paris, France.

We now think of applying in an evocative and not a rigorous mathematical way, the unexpected difficulties of the three-body problem to the n-body (i.e., more than three) problems of sociology or economics or history itself, and sense that social life is always multifactorial and not readily pin-downable, since “everything is causing everything else” and extracting mono-causal explanations must be elusive for all the planetary and Poincaré reasons and beyond.

This suggests to the student that novels are one attempt to say something about n-body human “orbits” based on “n-body” stances and “circumstances” with large amounts of randomness governing the untidy mess that dominates human affairs.

Words are deployed in novels and not numbers as in physics, but the “recalcitrance” of the world, social and physical, remains permanent.

Education and meta-intelligence would be more complete by seeing how the world, as someone put it, “won’t meet us halfway.” Remember Ian Stewart’s warning above:

“There is no tidy geometric characterization of three-body orbits…” and you sense that this must apply to human affairs even more deeply.