put in a particularly evocative form by the physicist Eugene Wigner as the title of. a lecture in in New York: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics. On ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’. Sorin Bangu. Abstract I present a reconstruction of Eugene Wigner’s argument for . Maxwell, Helmholtz, and the Unreasonable Effectiveness of the Method of Physical Bokulich – – Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

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Mario Livio’s book, Is God a mathematician is reviewed in this issue of Plus. In this article, Wigner referred to the uncanny ability of mathematics not only to describebut even to predict phenomena in the physical world. Indeed, how is it possible that all the phenomena observed in classical electricity and magnetism can be explained by means of just uhreasonable mathematical equations?

Furthermore, physicist James Clerk Maxwell after whom those four equations of electromagnetism are named showed in that the equations predicted that varying electric or magnetic fields should generate propagating waves. These waves—the familiar unreasonsble waves—were eventually detected by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz in a series of experiments conducted in the late s. And if that is not enough, the modern theory of electrodynamics, known as quantum electrodynamics QEDis even more astonishing.

In a group of physicists at Harvard University determined the magnetic moment of the electron which measures how strongly the electron interacts with a magnetic field to a unrexsonable of eight parts in a trillion.

Calculations of the electron’s magnetic moment based on QED reach the same precision effectlveness the two results agree! What is it that gives mathematics such incredible powers? In the present short article I will not even ekgene to answer this intricate question. I will rather present some less familiar aspects of the problem itself.

Unreasonable effectiveness

The puzzle of the power of mathematics is in fact even more complex than the above unreaaonable of electromagnetism might suggest. There are actually two facets to the “unreasonable effectiveness,” one that I will call active and another that I dub passive.

The active facet refers to the fact that when scientists attempt to light their way through the labyrinth of natural phenomena, they use mathematics as their torch.

In other words, at least some of the laws of nature are formulated in directly applicable mathematical mathdmatics. The mathematical entities, relations, and equations used in those laws were developed for a specific application. Newton, for instance, formulated the branch of mathematics known as calculus because he needed this tool for his equations of motion.

Similarly, string theorists today often develop the mathematical machinery they need. The passive effectiveness, on the other hand, refers to cases in which abstract mathematical theories had been developed with absolutely no applications in mind, only to turn out decades, or sometimes centuries later, to be powerfully predictive physical models.

In what follows I will describe a wonderful example of the continuous interplay between active and passive effectiveness.

In the Greek legend of the Gordian knot Alexander the Great used his sword to slice through a knot that had defied all previous attempts to untie it. Knots, and especially maritime knots, enjoy eugenw long history of legends and fanciful names such as “Englishman’s tie,” “hangman’s knot,” and “cat’s paw”. Knots became the subject of serious scientific investigation when in the s the English physicist William Thomson better known today as Lord Kelvin proposed that atoms were in fact knotted tubes of ether that mysterious substance that uneasonable supposed to permeate space.


In order to be able to develop something like a periodic table of the elements, Thomson had to be able to classify knots—find out effeciveness different knots are possible. This particular need sparked a great interest in the mathematical theory of knots.

This is a perfect example of what I dubbed the active aspect of the effectiveness of mathematics. In other words, physicists and mathematicians thought that knots were viable models for atoms, and consequently they enthusiastically engaged in the mathematical study of knots.

A mathematical knot looks very much like a familiar knot in a string, only with the string’s ends spliced a few examples of knots are shown in figure 1. In Thomson’s theory, knots such as the ones in figure 1a the unknotfigure 1b the trefoil knot and figure 1c the figure eight knot could, in principle at least, model atoms of increasing complexity, such as the hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms, respectively.

For knots to be truly useful, however, mathematicians searched for winger precise way of proving that what appeared to unreasonwble different knots such as the trefoil knot and the figure eight knot were really different—they couldn’t be transformed one into the other unreasonble some simple manipulation.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Scottish mathematician Peter Guthrie Tait and the University of Nebraska professor Charles Newton Little published complete tables of knots with up to ten crossings. Unfortunately, by the time that this heroic effort was completed, Kelvin’s theory had already been unreasonabl discarded as a model for atomic structure.

Still, even without any other application in sight, the mathematical interest in knot theory continued mathematica that point for its own sake. The only difference was that, as the British mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah has put it, “the study of knots became an esoteric branch of pure mathematics.

Eugene Wigner, The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences – PhilPapers

One of the main goals of knot theory has always been to identify properties that truly distinguish knots—to find what are known as knot invariants. A knot invariant acts very much like a “fingerprint” of the knot; it does not change by superficial deformations of the knot for example, of the type demonstrated in unreasonab,e 2. At first blush, you may think that the minimum number of crossings in a knot could serve as such an invariant.

After all, no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to reduce the number of crossings of the trefoil knot figure 1b to fewer than three. However, the minimum number of crossings is actually not a very useful invariant. As figure 1 demonstrates, there are three different knots with six crossings and no fewer than seven different knots with effechiveness crossings. Two major breakthroughs in knot theory occurred in and in Inthe American mathematician James Waddell Alexander discovered an algebraic expression known as the Alexander polynomial that uses the arrangement of crossings to label the knot.

Two knots mathematcs have different Alexander polynomials are indeed different e. Unfortunately, two knots that have the same Alexander polynomial may still be different. Consequently, while it was certainly very useful, the Alexander polynomial was still not perfect for classifying knots. Decades of work in the theory of knots finally produced the second breakthrough in The New Zealander-American mathematician Vaughan Jones detected an unexpected relation between knots and another abstract branch of mathematics known as von Neumann algebras.


This led to the discovery of a more sensitive invariant than the Alexander polynomial, which became known as the Jones polynomial. The Jones polynomial distinguishes, for instance, even between knots and their mirror images figure 3for which the Alexander polynomials were identical.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

In particular, string theorists Hirosi Ooguri and Or Vafa discovered that the number of complex topological structures that are formed when many strings interact is related to the Jones polynomial. Furthermore, the leading string theorist Ed Witten demonstrated that the Jones polynomial affords new insights in one of the most fundamental areas of research in modern physics, known as quantum field theory.

The lesson from this very brief history of knot theory is remarkable. Mathwmatics, it was the active effectiveness of mathematics that came into effsctiveness. Physicists needed a model for the atom, and when knots appeared to provide the appropriate tool, a mathematical theory of knots took off. When a better mathematical model in the form of the Bohr atom was discovered, mathematicians did not abandon knot theory.

Driven only by their curiosity, they continued to explore the properties of knots for many decades.

The mere possibility of understanding the properties of knots and the principles that govern their classification was seen by most mathematicians as exquisitely beautiful and essentially irresistible. Wigne, then came the surprising passive effectiveness of mathematics. Unexpectedly, the Jones polynomial and knot theory in general turned out to have wide-ranging applications in string theory.

What makes this story even more striking is the following fact. Recall that Thomson started to study knots because he was searching for a theory of atoms, then considered to be the most basic constituents of matter.

By a remarkably circular twist of history, knots are now found to provide answers in string theory, our present-day best effort to understand the constituents of matter!

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences – Wikipedia

So knot theory emerged from an attempt to explain physical reality, then it wandered into the abstract realm of pure mathematics—only to eventually return to its ancestral origin. Isn’t this absolutely amazing? Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician? It follows the lives and thoughts of some of the greatest mathematicians in history, and attempts to explain the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics.

His interests span a broad range of topics in astrophysics, from cosmology to the emergence of intelligent life. Dr Livio has done much fundamental work on the topic of accretion of mass onto black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs, as well as on the formation of black holes and the possibility to extract energy from them.

During the past decade, Dr Livio’s research focused on supernova explosions and their use in cosmology to determine the nature of the dark energy that pushes the universe to accelerate, and on extrasolar planets.

Skip to main content. A selection of knots. Image created by Ann Feild. A knot and its mirror image. Knots leading the way, from the atom to pure maths and back to physical matter.