## Posts Tagged ‘**infinity**’

## “Control of consciousness determines the quality of life”*…

Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book

The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought. More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.”…

Philosopher Peter Carruthers insists that conscious thought, judgment and volition are illusions. They arise from processes of which we are forever unaware. He explains to Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal: “There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought.”

See also: “An Anthropologist Investigates How We Think About How We Think.”

*Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience*

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**As we think about thought,** we might spare one for Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor; he died on this date in 1918. Cantor was the mathematician who created set theory, now fundamental to math, His proof that the real numbers are more numerous than the natural numbers implies the existence of an “infinity of infinities”… a result that generated a great deal of resistance, both mathematical (from the likes of Henri Poincaré) and philosophical (most notably from Wittgenstein). Some Christian theologians (particularly neo-Scholastics) saw Cantor’s work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God – on one occasion equating the theory of transfinite numbers with pantheism – a proposition that Cantor, a devout Lutheran, vigorously rejected.

These harsh criticisms fueled Cantor’s bouts of depression (retrospectively judged by some to have been bipolar disorder); he died in a mental institution.

## “I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity”*…

Suppose you’re working at a hotel with infinitely many rooms in it, numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, … all the way up forever and ever. (This is known as a Hilbert Hotel.) One evening when every single room is occupied, a traveler arrives and requests to be accommodated too. You’re the manager. What do you do to help the traveler?

Simple. You just ask each occupant to one room forward. 1 goes to 2, and 2 goes to 3, and so on. Every previous occupant gets a new room. And the first room is now open for the traveler.

The procedure above is characterized by an infinite number of actions or tasks to be carried out in a finite amount of time. Procedures with this character are known as supertasks…

More on the ins and outs of infinities at “Introducing Supertasks.” (More fun musings on infinity here and here; and more on Hilbert’s Hotel here.)

* Simone de Beauvoir, *La Vieillesse*

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**As we muse on many,** we might spare a thought for Hermann Hankel; he died on this date in 1873. A mathematician who worked with Möbius, Riemann, Weierstrass, and Kronecker (among others), he made important contributions to the understanding of complex numbers and quaternions… and to work begun by Bernard Bolzano on infinite series.

## “Mystery has its own mysteries”*…

Finally, an answer to a question that puzzled Cantor and Hilbert (proprietor of The Infinite Hotel) and challenged Cohen and Gödel…

In a breakthrough that disproves decades of conventional wisdom [and confounds common sense], two mathematicians have shown that two different variants of infinity are actually the same size. The advance touches on one of the most famous and intractable problems in mathematics: whether there exist infinities between the infinite size of the natural numbers and the larger infinite size of the real numbers…

Connecting the sizes of infinities and the complexity of mathematical theories: “Mathematicians Measure Infinities and Find They’re Equal.”

* “Mystery has its own mysteries, and there are gods above gods. We have ours, they have theirs. That is what’s known as infinity.” – Jean Cocteau

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**As we go big,** we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996. One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships. Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: As of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3. Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2. Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance). Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar (“Winnie Cooper” in *The Wonder Years*) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.

## “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others”*…

Now more than ever: Get a free logical fallacy poster.

* Douglas Adams, *The Salmon of Doubt*

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**As we dedicate ourselves to discipline,** we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to John Wallis; he was born on this date in 1616. An English mathematician who served as chief cryptographer for Parliament and, later, the royal court, he helped develop infinitesimal calculus and is credited with introducing the symbol ∞ for infinity.

## No reservation? No problem!…

Jeff Dekofsky explains Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hotel, a thought experiment proposed in the 1920s by German mathematician David Hilbert to illustrate some surprising properties of infinite sets, in this TED-Ed animated lecture…

*email readers click here for video*

As a special bonus, another amusing video (via Kottke)– an explanation of why it is that the sum of all positive integers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + …) = -1/12… Euler actually proved this result in 1735, but the result was only made rigorous later; and now physicists have been seeing this result actually show up in nature. (Spoiler alert: the answer turns on what one means by “sum” mathematically…)

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**As we pray for more fingers and toes,** we might spare a thought for Harald August Bohr; he died on this date in 1951. While materially less well-known than his brother Niels, Harald was a formidable mathematician (founder of the field of almost periodic functions), a gifted athlete (an accomplished footballer who won a silver medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics as a member of Denmark’s team), an inspirational teacher (the annual award for outstanding teaching at the University of Copenhagen is called “the Harald” in his honor), and an out-spoken critic of the anti-Semitic policies that took root in the German mathematical establishment in the 1930s.

## Infinitely cool…

**How to Count to Infinity** (or “Yes, Virginia, some infinities are bigger than others…”)

Many more sixty-second epiphanies at **MinutePhysics’ You Tube channel** (or via ** New Scientist TV**)

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**As we check in to Hilbert’s Hotel,** we might spare a thought for Joesph Fourier; the French mathematician, physicist, Egyptologist and administrator who died on this date in 1830. Fourier introduced Jean-Francois Champollion to the Rosetta Stone, which Champollion subsequently decoded/translated. And after calculating that a body the size of earth, at earth’s distance form the sun, should be cooler than our world is, discovered what we now call “the greenhouse effect.” But Fourier is best remembered for his contributions to mathematical physics through his *Théorie analytique de la chaleur* (1822; *The Analytical Theory of Heat*), which introduced an infinite mathematical series to aid in solving conduction equations. (The technique allowed the function of any variable to be expanded into a series of sines of multiples of the variable– now known as “the fourier series.”)

*True greatness is when your name is like ampere, watt, and fourier—when it’s spelled with a lower case letter.*

– Richard Hamming (in a 1986 Bell Labs Colloquium)