Monday, May 3, 2010

String theory and the brain

Some years ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was inadvertently put on the wrong panel, a panel on mathematics! Now let me say that I respect and fear mathematicians because I am so feeble at the subject. Once, when sitting next to a very renowned mathematician at dinner, I asked him whether he could explain to me in lay terms what his research was about. He replied “No”. End of conversation!

But on this occasion, I thought it would not be right to chicken out just because I had been put on the wrong panel. So I went there determined to give the brain a prominent place in the discussion, which took place over dinner.

The question I raised, to which no mathematician could provide an adequate answer, but which actually absorbed most of the evening’s discussion, was simple:

Given that there is no real experimental evidence for string theory, is it plausible that physicists and mathematicians would have come up with such a theory had we not had the kind of brain organization that we have?
The great mathematicians pondered the issue over the evening and could not provide an answer (nor by the way can I, at least not definitively).

I still think that the question is a very interesting one.

It goes beyond string theory to nanotechnology.

I have heard George Whitesides, eminent chemist, say that there are many phenomena in the world of nanotechnology that we have no intuition about but that we can formulate mathematically.

His general view, which I hope I am summarizing correctly, is that at the nano level, particles behave in a way that has not been properly formulated in our intuition, but which we can understand mathematically.

This raises the interesting question whether the mathematical brain has intuitions that are quite distinct from ordinary experiential intuitions.

Which comes back to the question I started with: whether we would have had these mathematical intuitions had we not had the kind of (mathematical) brain that we have.

I am not sure that I am formulating the questions precisely enough, but there is some interesting material for thought there.

1 comment:

Mohamady said...

I think this question is interesting for a different reason. Mathematics is regarded by most as 'universal truth' and so a search for the neural correlates of mathematical abilities could potentially illuminate universal aspects of human higher cognitive functions.