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absurdist

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*The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences*

by Eugene Wigner

by Eugene Wigner

"There is a story about two friends, who were classmates in high school, talking about their

jobs. One of them became a statistician and was working on population trends. He showed a

reprint to his former classmate. The reprint started, as usual, with the Gaussian distribution

and the statistician explained to his former classmate the meaning of the symbols for the actual

population, for the average population, and so on. His classmate was a bit incredulous and was

not quite sure whether the statistician was pulling his leg. “How can you know that?” was

his query. “And what is this symbol here?” “Oh,” said the statistician, “this is pi.” “What

is that?” “The ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter.” “Well, now you are

pushing your joke too far,” said the classmate, “surely the population has nothing to do with

the circumference of the circle.” Naturally, we are inclined to smile about the simplicity of

the classmate’s approach. Nevertheless, when I heard this story, I had to admit to an eerie

feeling because, surely, the reaction of the classmate betrayed only plain common sense. I

was even more confused when, not many days later, someone came to me and expressed his

bewilderment2 with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data

on which we test our theories. “How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its

attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding

our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the

present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?”

It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.

The preceding two stories illustrate the two main points which are the subjects of the present

discourse. The first point is that mathematical concepts turn up in entirely unexpected connections.

Moreover, they often permit an unexpectedly close and accurate description of the

phenomena in these connections. Secondly, just because of this circumstance, and because we

do not understand the reasons of their usefulness, we cannot know whether a theory formulated

in terms of mathematical concepts is uniquely appropriate. We are in a position similar to that

of a man who was provided with a bunch of keys and who, having to open several doors in succession,

always hit on the right key on the first or second trial. He became skeptical concerning

the uniqueness of the coordination between keys and doors."

So we don't understand why math works?

Also just curious what exactly does pi have to do with the population (distribution)?

LINK: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html