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There’s a mathematical theorem (the Banach Tarski theorem) which states that

Given a solid ball in 3‑dimensional space, there exists a decomposition of the ball into a finite number of disjoint subsets, which can then be put back together in a different way to yield two identical copies of the original ball.

This is, to say the least, counter intuitive! It suggests that you can dissect a beach ball, put the parts back together and get two beach balls for the price of one.

This brings up the question of what mathematics really is, and how it is related to what we loosely call reality? Scientists use mathematics to describe the world, and indeed some aspects of reality, such as relativity or quantum mechanics, can only be accurately described in mathematics.

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So we know that there is a relationship of some sort between mathematics and reality as our maths is the best tool that we have found to talk about scientific things in an accurate way. Just how close this relationship is has been discussed by philosophers and scientists for millennia. The Greek philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others, reputedly thought that “all phenomena in the universe can be reduced to whole numbers and their ratios“.

The Banach Tarski theorem seems to go against all sense. It seems to be an example of getting something for nothing, and appears to contravene the restrictions of the first law of thermodynamics. The volume (and hence the amount of matter) appears to have doubled, and hence the amount of energy contain as matter in the balls appears to have doubled. It does not appear that the matter in the resulting balls is more attenuated than that in the original ball.

Since the result appears to be counter intuitive, the question is raised as to whether or not it is merely a mathematical curiosity or whether it has any basis in reality, It asks something fundamental about the relationship between maths and reality.

It’s not the first time that such questions have been asked. When the existence of the irrational numbers was demonstrated, Greek mathematicians were horrified, and the discoverer of the proof (Hippasus) was either killed or exiled, depending on the source quoted. This was because the early mathematicians believed that everything could be reduced to integers and rational numbers, and their world did not have room for irrational numbers in it. In their minds numbers directly related to reality and reality was rational mathematically and in actuality.

These days we are used to irrational numbers and we see where they fit into the scheme of things. We know that there are many more irrational numbers than rational numbers and that the ‘real’ numbers (the rational and irrational numbers together) can be described by points on a line.

Interestingly we don’t, when do an experiment, use real numbers, because to specify a real number we would have write down an infinite sequence of digits. Instead we approximate the values we read from our meters and gauges with an appropriate rational number. We measure 1.2A for example, where the value 1.2 which equals 12/10 stands in for the real number that corresponds to the actual current flowing.

We then plug this value into our equations, and out pops an answer. Or we plot the values on a graph read off the approximate answer. The equations may have constants which we can only express as rational numbers (that is, we approximate them) so our experimental physics can only ever be approximate.

It’s a wonder that we can get useful results at all, what with the approximation of experimental results, the approximated constants in our equations and the approximated results we get. If we plot our results the graph line will have a certain thickness, of a pencil line or a set of pixels. The best we can do is estimate error bounds on our experimental results, and the constants in our equations, and hence the error bounds in our results. We will probably statistically estimate the confidence that the results show what we believe they show through this miasma of approximations.

It’s surprising in some ways what we know about the world. We may measure the diameter of a circle somewhat inaccurately, we multiply it by an approximation to the irrational number pi, and we know that the answer we get will be close to the measured circumference of the circle.

It seems that our world resembles the theoretical world only approximately. The theoretical world has perfect circles, with well-defined diameters and circumference, exactly related by an irrational number. The real world has shapes that are more or less circular, with more or less accurately measured diameters and circumferences, related more or less accurately by an rational number approximating the irrational number, pi.

We seem to be very much like the residents of Plato’s Cave and we can only see a shadow of reality, and indeed we can only measure the shadows on the walls of the cave. In spite of this, we apparently can reason pretty well what the real world is like.

Our mathematical ruminations seem to be reflected in reality, even if at the time they seem bizarre. The number pi has been known for so long that it no longer seems strange to us. Real numbers have also been known for millennia and don’t appear to us to be strange, though people don’t seem to realise that when they measure a real number they can only state it as a rational number, like 1.234.

For the Greeks, the irrational numbers which actually comprise almost all of the real numbers, were bizarre. For us, they don’t seem strange. It may be that in some way, as yet unknown, the Banach Tarski theorem will not seem strange, and may seem obvious.

It may be that we will use it, but approximately, much as we use the real numbers in our calculations and theories, but only approximately. I doubt that we will be duplicating beach balls, or dissecting a pea and reconstituting it the same size as the sun, but I’m pretty sure that we will be using it for something.

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I see maths as descriptive. It describes the ideal world, it describes the shape of it. I don’t think that the world IS mathematics in the Pythagorean sense, but numbers are an aspect of the real world, and as such can’t help but describe the real world exactly, while we can only measure it approximately. But that’s a very circular description.