Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the June, 2015 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
There’s something strange about Pi. Really strange. Irrational even. Remember those geometry and trigonometry classes that bored you silly in high school? There may have been something not only interesting, but very mysterious hiding in those droning lectures and the endless parade of formulas that had you counting the minutes till the lunchtime bell. How much of the lecture focused on the issue of “irrational numbers”? If you were like me, the “irrational” part was the fact that you had to wait another half hour for the bell to save you.
But perhaps you were stirred, maybe a little, to think about the real meaning of an Irrational number. They can’t be completely resolved by a fraction or a decimal. Their true character goes on forever, into infinity. In a sense they don’t totally exist in our limited reality. In an attempt to avoid the boredom mentioned in previous paragraphs, I’ll refrain from listing all the incidences where an irrational number, like Pi, steps in to save the day for what would otherwise be a mathematical dead end. But, you need to know that it’s deeply involved in issues like the famous Fibonacci sequence, which frequently and mysteriously pops up in nature, and even the Bell Curve that’s essential to so many scientific analyses, including statistics and quantum mathematics.
OK, let’s focus on just one of the major enigmas science currently faces that may relate to “irrational” numbers—gravity. From Galileo to Newton to Einstein the true nature of gravity has not been revealed. Galileo and the Tower of Pisa experiment did begin to open our minds to the nature of this force, but it was just a start. Newton broke new barriers putting gravity onto the list of legitimate scientific and mathematical studies, but he didn’t even hazard a guess as to what it really is.
Einstein blew our minds in defining in much more precise detail how gravity works as well as providing an explanation about what it is (i.e., a bending of time and space). But that still leaves science confused—why is gravity so weak? Why does it resist all attempts to enfold it into quantum mathematics and help resolve its conflict with Einstein’s Relativity? Where is the ‘prodigal son’ of the Standard Model of particle physics—the graviton?
[Caveat Lector] Math is considered the rock solid foundation of science—its lever. In fact, some now believe that reality at its core is math and nothing else, but it does contain riddles, and Pi (along with the field of irrational numbers) is the fulcrum that both exemplifies the fantastic reach of this incredible tool, as well as point to some of its apparent enigmas. Think about the fact that a circle or a sphere (or any curved object) requires the irrational Pi to complete its mathematical description. That means that anything containing curves is mathematically incomplete within our reality. Could that prove that there are dimensions or even universes beyond what we experience directly?
The idea of a many-dimensional “multiverse” contained in “M-Theory” has become an accepted topic of serious scientific discussion. In that theory, the description of gravity as consisting of closed loop strings, unattached to the ‘brane’ of our 3-dimensional world, means that they are free to migrate out of our reality.
Well, you decide. Is there something really mysterious about Pi and other irrational numbers? Or do you feel ‘it’s just math, don’t think about it so much’? In my mind, it’s a flashing neon sign pointing to an existence beyond our common sense and experience. Possibly a majority of what “is” lies well beyond our current ability to comprehend. In the words of theoretical physicist Brian Greene, “One of the strangest features of string theory is that it requires more than the three spatial dimensions that we see directly in the world around us. That sounds like science fiction, but it is an indisputable outcome of the mathematics of string theory.”
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this page last updated 6 June 2015
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