The Conversation U.S. launched its new book club with a bang – talking to mathematician Manil Suri about his nonfiction work “The Big Bang of Numbers: How to Build the Universe Using Only Math.” Suri, a previous author in The Conversation, has also written an award-winning fiction trilogy, in addition to being a professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Below is an edited excerpt from the book club discussion. You’re welcome to keep the conversation flowing by adding your own questions for Suri to the comments.
What is the Big Bang of numbers and where do you go from there in the book?
I think the story for me started way back when I was an undergraduate in Bombay. My algebra professor told us this very famous saying by Leopold Kronecker, the famous mathematician, that God gave us the integers and all the rest is the work of human beings. What he meant was that once you have the whole numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – which are somehow coming from heaven, then you can build up the rest of mathematics from it.
And then he went on and said, Hey, I can actually do better. I don’t need God. I can actually, as a mathematician, create the numbers out of nothing. And he showed us this marvelous, almost magic trick, where you start with something called the empty set and then you start building the numbers.
It was the closest I’ve been to a religious experience, almost like the walls just dissolved and suddenly there were numbers everywhere.
Once I started writing my novels, I was meeting a lot of people who were artists and writers. And they would always say, you know, we used to love math when we were in school, but afterward we never had a chance to really pursue it. And can you tell us something about your mathematics?
So, I started building a kind of talk, which started with this big bang, as I call it, building the numbers out of nothing. I finally decided I should write a math book, and it would be aimed at a wide audience.
And I said, well, can you go further? You can create the numbers, but can you actually start building everything, including the whole universe from that? So that was a way to try to lay out mathematics almost as a story where one thing follows from the other and everything is embedded in one narrative.
Who were you imagining to be your readers as you were writing the book?
There’s just so much joy to be had out of mathematics, so many things that you don’t really see in normal courses where the emphasis is always on doing the calculations, finding the right answer. So this book is written for people who want to really engage with mathematics on the level of ideas rather than get into computations and calculations.
After you set off your Big Bang of numbers, you dig in to some of life’s big questions. What do you see as math’s role in grappling with those big thoughts, like where the universe came from, why we even exist and so on?
Once you start talking about the Big Bang, what comes into your mind is creation. There is a doctrine called creatio ex nihilo, which is basically creating everything out of nothing.
That’s a cornerstone of many religions where God creates the universe out of nothing. It’s also in some sense being explored by physicists, where you have some sort of singularity and from that, everything emerges in the Big Bang.
So my thought was, both these areas, religion and physics, are in the public’s imagination much more than mathematics is. Is there a way to posit math as the creative force of everything?
Physicist Eugene Wigner, who was a Nobel laureate, talked about the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics at describing everything in our physical universe. It’s so good at modeling physics and what have you. Could it be that math is really the true driving force of the universe? Rather than us just inventing it and using it to describe the universe, could the universe really be describing mathematics? Then the universe is just a physical manifestation, an approximation, if you will, of those mathematical ideas. It’s a completely different view of math.
There’s an ongoing debate over whether math is something that people invented or whether it’s something that exists independently of us. In the book, you say that perhaps the deepest insight that math can offer us is that it’s both of those things.
So the glib answer to your question whether math’s invented or discovered is that you have to create a new word. Instead of discovered or invented it’s “disvented.”
What I mean by that is simply that there are some questions we really can’t get to any kind of logical or supportable answer. One is the question of our own existence – people might believe one thing or the other, but it always comes down to: Is there some real purpose to our lives, or is our creation just something that happened randomly – you know, molecules getting together?
Now if we invent mathematics, then we’re inventing it for a purpose. If it just generates by itself, starting with emptiness, building around numbers in some strange realm that we don’t know about, then it’s just wafting around, purposeless.
Math has that duality that can’t be resolved. So it’s a metaphor, telling us, hey, you can’t decide for math, and you’ll never be able to decide for yourself about your own existence.
Can you tell us a bit about your previous books, the Indian novels?
The first one was called “The Death of Vishnu.” I went back to visit my parents in Mumbai in around 1995, and this man Vishnu, who used to live in our building and do errands, was dying on our steps. I started writing this as a short story.
It started going into a more philosophical realm when a writing teacher said, you know, Vishnu is also the name of the caretaker of the universe in Hindu mythology. So if you name somebody Vishnu, you need to somehow explore that. So that’s what opened up this whole new world for me.
The second book was “The Age of Shiva.” That one’s the journey of a woman right after India’s independence in 1947. She’s making her way in a very male-dominated world, and she’s not perfect.
Then the third one, I decided, OK, I need to put in some science and math characters. So “The City of Devi” actually has both a physicist and a statistician. Again it’s in Mumbai, set in the future with the threat of a nuclear war with Pakistan and a love triangle unfolding in front of that.
It’s kind of interesting. I thought that I was done with this mythical “where do we come from?” kind of philosophy that I had in the three books, but apparently not, because now “The Big Bang of Numbers” looks at it from a mathematical perspective.
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