Sunday, May 16, 2010

God Stuff

It's hard to visit Barnes & Noble and not find at least one interesting new book. Most recently, a volume by Mario Livio, an astrophysicist, caught my attention: "Is God a Mathematician?"

The question is intriguing and led me to skim his book, even though I am one of the least likely people to understand much of what he says. His chapter on knot theory was far too knotty for me.

I used to tell my students that questions are ultimately more important than answers--the really interesting questions being unanswerable--and that in a world where science claims to solve mysteries, nothing is more important (spiritually, I meant) that the wonder and awe of mysteries that lead most open-minded people to the ultimate mystery of God.

So it was not too disappointing to find that Livio seems to say little about God or theology. He does note the remarkable "magical patterns" found in numbers, as when the sum of every series of odd numbers (1 + 3 =4) produces a square number. When I taught my course in the medieval cathedrals and referred to the apparent use of numerology in some of the designs of Chartres, for example, the students were especially fascinated. The use of the divine ratio and of variations on 3 (Trinity) by the architects is only part of the question we are left with as we study these enormous structures,built before modern engineering: How on earth did they do it?

Behind the numerology of Chartres, and Livio's book,is the fundamental question that has bedeviled mathematicians for centuries: Is math a human invention, or does it reflect a divine order that scientists keep uncovering?

I naturally favor the latter view. I am intrigued to read about physicists who keep discovering in the intricate design of the universe a sign of the divine mind.

Scholars at the School of Chartres in the 11th century began to use Pythagoras and other ancient sources to pose such questions about the relation between numbers and the universe, the same type of questions which later intrigued Dante in his conception of paradise. To know that thinkers today still ask similar questions is wonderfully humbling.

The most important thing in Livio's book, for me, is the unanswerable question in the title.

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