Better Take Off Your Shoes And Socks

  It has long been posited that the fabric of our universe can elegantly be described mathematically.  I’ve always sort of bought this intellectually, but without a gut level embrace because of all the, well, numbers.  All of those sliding blackboards in superposition – covered with chalk numbers, parentheses, and strange symbols – seem hopelessly unintelligible.

  Fortunately (for my daydreaming), recent research in neuroscience has provided another point of entry.  In the March 3, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, Jim Holt wrote about “Numbers Guy” Stanislas Dehaene. 

  “Over the decades, evidence concerning cognitive deficits in brain damaged patients has accumulated, and researchers have concluded that we have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general… In Dehaene’s view, we are all born with an evolutionarily ancient mathematical instinct… [and so are salamanders, pigeons, raccoons, dolphins, parrots, and monkeys] The number area lies deep within a fold in the parietal lobe called the intraparietal sulcus.”*

  “Our number sense endows us with a crude feel for addition … But multiplication is another matter.  It is an ‘unnatural practice’… Give a calculator to a five-year-old, and you will teach him how to make friends with numbers instead of despising them…”  Tell me if this last bit doesn’t ring true.

  OK, if time-space is the macro and one’s brain micro what are examples in between? Or is there a disconnect like between quantum physics and the theory of relativity? One occurred to me while reading about a concept known as the Golden Section.  It is the proportion resulting from the division of a straight line into two parts so that the ratio of the whole to the larger is the same as that of the larger to the smaller: 1: (√5+1)2. 

  Gwyn Headley writes: “The inexplicably satisfying proportions of the Golden Section have been appreciated since before Euclid”.   Google the term and you will find it neatly describing stuff ranging from the Pyramids at Giza to the Parthenon to Leonardo’s Annunciation in the Uffizi, to an endless array of elements of modern design.

  Furthermore, the closely related Fibonacci sequence can be used to describe such disparate things as the elegant spiral of the shell of the Nautilus to a smooth golf swing.

  The more this connectedness sinks in, the more I’m nearly overtaken by, well, The Marvelous.

  Holy dogs, if I had been on this scent earlier I would have made Mr. Gates wish he’d finished Harvard.  But shoot, now I know my attention will soon drift. 

*  Interesting thing here is that Holt goes on to say that “Brain imaging, for all the sophistication of its technology, yields a fairly crude picture of what’s going on inside the skull, and the same spot in the brain might light up for two tasks even though different neurons are involved. Quoting Dehaene: Some people believe that psychology is just being replaced by brain imaging, but I don’t think that’s the case at all”. 

  There are physicists and other thinkers who use this fact to hold that while consciousness may be present in a brain, it is not a product of it.  See, I’m getting off track.  More later.


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