In some respects, I think infinity is what delineates mathematics from the ‘Real’ world, meaning the world we can all see and touch and otherwise ‘sense’ through an ever-expanding collection of instruments. To give an obvious example, calculus is used extensively in engineering and physics to determine physical parameters to great accuracy, yet the method requires the abstraction of infinitesimals at its foundation.

Sabine Hossenfelder, whom I’ve cited before, provides a good argument that infinity doesn’t exist in the real world, and Norman Wildberger even argues it doesn’t exist in mathematics because, according to his worldview, mathematics is defined only by what is computable. I won’t elaborate on his arguments but you can find them on YouTube.

I was prompted to write about this after reading the cover feature article in last week’s *New Scientist* by Timothy Revell, who is *New Scientist*’s deputy US editor. The article was effectively a discussion about the ‘continuum hypothesis’, which, following its conjecture by Georg Cantor, is still in the ‘undecidable’ category (proved neither true nor false). Basically, there are countable infinities and uncountable infinities, which was proven by Cantor and is uncontentious (with the exception of mathematical fringe-dwellers like Wildberger). The continuum hypothesis effectively says that there is no category of infinity in between, which I won’t go into because I don’t know enough about it.

But I do understand Cantor’s arguments that demonstrate how the rational numbers are ‘countably infinite’ and how the Real numbers are not. To appreciate the extent of the mathematical universe (in numbers) to date, I recommend this video by Matt Parker. Sabine Hossenfelder, whom I’ve already referenced, gives a very good exposition on countable and uncountable infinities in the video linked above. She also explains how infinities are dealt with in physics, particularly in quantum mechanics, where they effectively cancel each other out.

Sabine argues that ‘reality’ can only be determined by what can be ‘measured’, which axiomatically rules out infinity. She even acknowledges that the Universe could be physically infinite, but we wouldn’t know. Marcus du Sautoy, in his book, *What We Cannot Know*, argues that it might remain forever unknowable, if that’s the case.

Nevertheless, Sabine argues that infinity is ‘real’ in mathematics, and I would agree. She points out that infinity is a concept that we encounter early, because it’s implicit in our counting numbers. No matter how big a number is, there is always a bigger one. Infinities are intrinsic to many of the unsolved problems in mathematics, and not just Cantor’s continuum hypothesis. There are 3 involving primes that are well known: the Goldbach conjecture, the twin prime conjecture and Riemann’s hypothesis, which is the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics, at the time of writing. In all these cases, it’s unknown if they’re true to infinity.

Without getting too far off the track, the Riemann hypothesis argues that all the non-trivial zeros of the Riemann Zeta function lie on a line in the complex plane which is 1/2i. In other words, all the zeros are of the form, a + 1/2i, which is a complex number with imaginary part 1/2. The thing is that we already know there are an infinite number of them, we just don’t know if there are any that break that rule. The curious thing about infinities is that we are relatively comfortable with them, even though we can’t relate to them in the physical world, and they can never be computed. As I said in my opening paragraph, it’s what separates mathematics from reality.

And this leads one to consider what mathematics is, if it’s not reality. Not so recently, I had a discussion with someone on Quora who argued that mathematics is ‘fiction’. Specifically, they argued that any mathematics with no role in the physical universe is fiction. There is an immediate problem with this perspective, because we often don’t find a role in the ‘real world’ for mathematical discoveries, until decades, or even centuries later.

I’ve argued in another post that there is a fundamental difference between a physics equation and a purely mathematical equation that many people are not aware of. Basically, physics equations, like Einstein’s most famous, E = mc^{2}, have no meaning outside the physical universe; they deal with physical parameters like mass, energy, time and space.

On the other hand, there are mathematical relationships like Euler’s famous identity, e^{iπ} + 1 = 0, which has no meaning in the physical world, unless you represent it graphically, where it is a point on a circle in the complex plane. Talking about infinity, π famously has an infinite number of digits, and Euler’s equation, from which the identity is derived, comes from the sum of two infinite power series.

And this is why many mathematicians and physicists treat mathematics as a realm that already exists independently of us, known as mathematical Platonism. John Barrow made this point in his excellent book, *Pi in the Sky*, where he acknowledges it has quasi-religious connotations. Paul Davies invokes an imaginative metaphor of there being a ‘mathematical warehouse’ where ‘Mother Nature’, or God (if you like), selects the mathematical relationships which make up the ‘laws of the Universe’. And this is the curious thing about mathematics: that it’s ‘unreasonably effective in describing the natural world’, which Eugene Wigner wrote an entire essay on in the 1960s.

Marcus du Sautoy, whom I’ve already mentioned, points out that infinity is associated with God, and both he and John Barrow have suggested that the traditional view of God could be replaced with mathematics. Epistemologically, I think mathematics has effectively replaced religion in describing both the origins of the Universe and its more extreme phenomena.

If one looks at the video I cited by Matt Parker, it’s readily apparent that there is infinitely more mathematics that we don’t know compared to what we do know, and Gregory Chaitin has demonstrated that there are infinitely more incomputable Real numbers than computable Reals. This is consistent with Godel’s famous Incompleteness Theorem that counter-intuitively revealed that there is a mathematical distinction between ‘proof’ and ‘truth’. In other words, in any consistent, axiom-based system of mathematics there will always exist mathematical truths that can’t be proved within that system, which means we need to keep expanding the axioms to determine said truths. This implies that mathematics is a never-ending epistemological endeavour. And, if our knowledge of the physical world is dependent on our knowledge of mathematics, then it’s arguably a never-ending endeavour as well.

I cannot leave this topic without discussing the one area where infinity and the natural world seem to intersect, which literally has world-changing consequences. I’m talking about chaos theory, which is dependent on the sensitivity of initial conditions. Paul Davies, in his book, *The Cosmic Blueprint*, actually provides an example where he shows that, mathematically, you have to calculate the initial conditions to infinite decimal places to make a precise prediction. Sabine Hossenfelder has a video on chaos where she demonstrates how it’s impossible to predict the future of a chaotic event beyond a specific horizon. This horizon varies – for the weather it’s around 10 days and for the planetary orbits it’s 10s of millions of years. Despite this, Sabine argues that the Universe is deterministic, which I’ve discussed in another post.

Mark John Fernee (physicist with Queensland University and regular Quora contributor) also argues that the universe is deterministic and that chaotic events are unpredictable because we can’t measure the initial conditions accurately enough. He’s not alone among physicists, but I believe it’s in the mathematics.

I point to coin tossing, which is the most common and easily created example of chaos. Marcus du Sautoy uses the tossing of dice, which he discusses in his aforementioned book, and in this video. The thing about chaotic events is that if you were to rerun them, you’d get a different result and that goes for the whole universe. Tossing coins is also associated with probability theory, where the result of any individual toss is independent of any previous toss with the same coin. That could only be true if chaotic events weren’t repeatable.

There is even something called quantum chaos, which I don’t know a lot about, but it may have a connection to Riemann’s hypothesis (mentioned above). Certainly, Riemann’s hypothesis is linked to quantum mechanics via Hermitian matrices, supported by relevant data (John Derbyshire,* Prime Obsession*). So, mathematics is related to the natural world in ever-more subtle and unexpected ways.

Chaos drives the evolvement of the Universe on multiple scales, including biological evolution and the orbits of planets. If chaos determines our fates, then infinities may well play the ultimate role.