A lesson in Maths for Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy in his prime.

I have a lot of time for Marcus du Sautoy, but I think that he perhaps needs to either employ a copy editor or just tone down his claims for the importance of Mathematics.

In this BBC article he claims:

Every number is built by multiplying primes together and from numbers you get mathematics and from mathematics you get the whole of science.

Well of course that is only true for half the integers on the number line, the positive integers. And even in that statement it is really a meaningless tautology, since any number to which the definition didn’t apply would then be a prime number! Thus it just says ‘numbers exist’. However, his statement doesn’t apply to negative numbers, of which there are many in the sciences. And neither are the infinity of real numbers that lie in between each integer created by operations involving primes.

And although Mathematics is a powerful tool used in scientific analysis, it is just one tool. Like electronics, mechanical engineering or computer programming. And without denigrating mathematicians, this comment speaks to a common misunderstanding of science, particularly physics. Some people – physicists and non-physicists – think that Physics is just Applied Mathematics. And that if one writes down the mathematics, one has said all that can be said.

This is arrogant nonsense. In Physics, Mathematics is a descriptive tool, and when the description no longer matches what I like to call ‘reality’, then I side with ‘reality’, and physics, and I put the mathematics in the bin.

And my point is? It’s easy to make grandiose statements  when one is in full flight. But actually, on reflection, not everything is Mathematics. Or Physics. Or Chemistry. Or indeed any kind of -ology, even that most fundamental of all the sciences: Sociology.

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