Monday, April 6, 2009

Alien mathematics

Unlike what you might be expecting from the title, this post is not about Großendieck's fundamental reploughing of algebraic geometry, but about the following hypothetical question:

Imagine we discover another civilisation living in some corner of some galaxy, where we know that the physics is essentially the same than on earth. Would they have the same mathematics than us? And if yes, would they have the same mathematics history than us?

David Gross was proposing this thought exercise at the end of a public talk by Robbert Dijkgraaf at KITP, and I figured the best way to attack it was by taking a hot bath. In fact, the bath was so hot that I could feel my spirits evaporate and I felt that were I to think about this question in such circumstances, I would develop biased conceptions that would definitely screw all my chances to reach any interesting conclusions... Nevertheless I did it, and it's a mess.

(Note that Dijkgraaf wasn't too inspired by the question -- I guess this is the difference between a Nobelised and a non-Nobelised physicist: the former becomes philosophically oriented (remember Josephson))

Probably it is sensible to start by the second part of the question, assuming the answer to the first is positive. Then it is obvious that it would be quite challenging to defend the opinion that their math history is exactly the same as ours. They would have needed to have e.g. an Evariste Galois killed at 20 in an obscure duel, etc. But might they have had the same structure in the development of their mathematics?

What would Kant say about this question? I believe that it would be something along the line of "Their mathematics would resemble ours inasmuch as we are able to perceive them, and them us. (After all they could be made of "dark matter", in which case it would be strange if they had the same concepts as ours...)