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Question by James Arnold

Is physics just a branch of mathematics?

The journal Gravitation and Cosmology has declined my paper "Gravitation, force, and
time" because it is conceptual, not mathematical. I have no problem with the Field
Equations insofar as they describe gravitation as a deformation of spacetime, and I
explicitly state in the abstract and the text that mathematical formalisms describing it as a
force are not incorrect as mathematics, but physically irrelevant.
Nonetheless, the editior wrote: "Thank you for submitting your manuscript, which we are
regretfully unable to offer to publish. That is because your manuscript seems to be a
philosophical rather than physical, and contains no mathematical explanations at all.
Thus, this is a little bit away from the modern standards and traditions of research in the
field of theoretical physics, where each new model or conception has a significant
proportion of mathematical considerations besides the conceptual ideology or pure
thought experiments. Our journal is focused on a mathematically based physical research
in the field of gravitation, general relativity, and cosmology."
If a physical model is counter-empirical and the model's supplemental mathematics is
only analolgically correct, how is it possible to criticize a flawed model?
My paper can be viewed here:
I invite pertinent criticisms.

Popular Answers

Vicente Aboites 32.19 81.57 Centro de Investigaciones en Optica

To some extent I agree with the review from the point of view that mathematics is
the language of science. You can not do science without mathematics, at least
science as is understood by most scientists.
As you may know there are some exeptions (I quote from wikipedia) such as
"Fictionalism" in mathematics (philosophy of mathematics). This was brought to
fame in 1980 when Hartry Field published "Science Without Numbers", which

rejected and in fact reversed Quine's "indispensability argument". Where Quine

suggested that mathematics was indispensable for our best scientific theories, and
therefore should be accepted as a body of truths talking about independently
existing entities, Field suggested that mathematics was dispensable, and therefore
should be considered as a body of falsehoods not talking about anything real. He
did this by giving a complete axiomatization of Newtonian mechanics that didn't
reference numbers or functions at all. He started with the "betweenness" of
Hilbert's axioms to characterize space without coordinatizing it, and then added
extra relations between points to do the work formerly done by vector fields.
Hilbert's geometry is mathematical, because it talks about abstract points, but in
Field's theory, these points are the concrete points of physical space, so no special
mathematical objects at all are needed.
Having shown how to do science without using numbers, Field proceeded to
rehabilitate mathematics as a kind of useful fiction. He showed that mathematical
physics is a conservative extension of his non-mathematical physics (that is, every
physical fact provable in mathematical physics is already provable from Field's
system), so that mathematics is a reliable process whose physical applications are
all true, even though its own statements are false. Thus, when doing mathematics,
we can see ourselves as telling a sort of story, talking as if numbers existed. For
Field, a statement like "2 + 2 = 4" is just as fictitious as "Sherlock Holmes lived at
221B Baker Street"but both are true according to the relevant fictions.
By this account, there are no metaphysical or epistemological problems special to
mathematics. The only worries left are the general worries about nonmathematical physics, and about fiction in general. Field's approach has been very
influential, but is widely rejected. This is in part because of the requirement of
strong fragments of second-order logic to carry out his reduction, and because the
statement of conservativity seems to require quantification over abstract models
or deductions.
Why don't you try to send your article to a more philosophically oriented journal?
The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Science (APS),
the philosophy sections of the Rev. Mex. Fis. among many others. In your
position I wouldn't feel discouraged.
In conclusion, I believe that Physics is not necessarily a branch of
mathematics...but without mathematics you cannot do physics.
Jun 25, 2013 Flag

Issam Sinjab 60.38 4.9

A very interesting article that looks into the relation between mathematics and
physics from a physicist and mathematician point of view is the one by Benjamin
The Relation between Mathematics and Physics:
Jul 30, 2013 Flag

All Answers (34) Show full discussion

Show previous comments

James Dwyer 14.32

Jon Richfield,
I had to laugh at first, but you do have a point. Is it the chicken or the egg?
However, the posted question was prompted by a journal editor's rejection notice
that stated:
"... That is because your manuscript seems to be a philosophical rather than
physical [sic], and contains no mathematical explanations at all. Thus, this is a
little bit away from the modern standards and traditions of research in the field of
theoretical physics, where each new model or conception has a significant
proportion of mathematical considerations besides the conceptual ideology or
pure thought experiments. Our journal is focused on a mathematically based
physical research in the field of gravitation, general relativity, and cosmology."
So the primary question is: can the study of physics be advanced without
presenting sophisticated mathematical analyses?
I think it can certainly be argued that mankind's fascination with the universe
began long before his development of abstract mathematical representations. As I
recall, cave paintings depicting cosmological events and buildings specifically
aligned to denote the seasonal solstices and other events indicate that humanity
had developed some significant understanding of the cosmos prior to the
development of math and likely even written language. Math may have been more
properly a development of agriculture than physics...
One aspect of the question is whether the formal study of physics is now so
dependent on mathematical representation that physicists cannot communicate
effectively without it. Was the quote of the journal editor accurate: "... manuscript
seems to be a philosophical rather than physical, and contains no mathematical
explanations at all..." - [sic]?
Perhaps some crucial insights are being overlooked as a result...

Aug 1, 2013

Alfonso De Miguel 1.07

Hi James, I think that currently we are suffering an abusive use of mathematics by
empirical science. But if you try to publish your article at a Philosophic magazine,
yo will get the same response, because philosophy has their own technical land
exclusive language too. And currently it is the same for law or medicine or
computer programming or any professional field. They have created very closed
and elitist fields. But I think that in physics this situation will be deeply
questioned very soon because mathematics can or can not explain correctly
reality. It depends on how we use these language. Regards.
Aug 1, 2013

Issam Sinjab 60.38 4.9

This is how Paul Dirac view the relation between mathematics and physics:
"The physicist, in his study of natural phenomena, has two methods of making
progress: (1) the method of experiment and observation, and (2) the method of
mathematical reasoning. The former is just the collection of selected data; the
latter enables one to infer results about experiments that have not been performed.
There is no logical reason why the second method should be possible at all, but
one has found in practice that it does work and meets with reasonable success.
This must be ascribed to some mathematical quality in Nature, a quality which the
casual observer of Nature would not suspect, but which nevertheless plays an
important role in Nature's scheme."
"Pure mathematics and physics are becoming ever more closely connected,
though their methods remain different. One may describe the situation by saying
that the mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while
the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by Nature, but as time
goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician
finds interesting are the same as those which Nature has chosen. It is difficult to
predict what the result of all this will be. Possibly, the two subjects will ultimately
unify, every branch of pure mathematics then having its physical application, its
importance in physics being proportional to its interest in mathematics."
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------The Relation between Mathematics and Physics, By Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac,
Proceedings of the Royal Society (Edinburgh) Vol. 59, 1938-39, Part II pp. 122129

Modified Aug 2, 2013 by the author

Aug 2, 2013

James Dwyer 14.32

Issam Sinjab,
Very interesting - especially to the extent that Dirac's award winning perspective
some 75 years ago may have influenced the current state of affairs. Another
portion of the same lecture discusses the replacement of a principle of simplicity
in physics with the principle of mathematical beauty...
"We have followed through the main course of the development of the relation
between mathematics and physics up to the present time, and have reached a stage
where it becomes interesting to indulge in speculations about the future. There has
always been an unsatisfactory feature in the relation, namely, the limitation in the
extent to which mathematical theory applies to a description of the physical
universe. The part to which it does not apply has suffered an increase with the
arrival of quantum mechanics and a decrease with the arrival of the new
cosmology, but has always remained.
"This feature is so unsatisfactory that I think it safe to predict it will disappear in
the future, in spite of the startling changes in our ordinary ideas to which we
should then be led. It would mean the existence of a scheme in which the whole
of the description of the universe has its mathematical counterpart, and we must
suppose that a person with a complete knowledge of mathematics could deduce,
not only astronomical data, but also all the historical events that take place in the
world, even the most trivial ones. Of course, it must be beyond human power
actually to make these deductions, since life as we know it would be impossible if
one could calculate future events, but the methods of making them would have to
be well defined. The scheme could not be subject to the principle of simplicity
since it would have to be extremely complicated, but it may well be subject to the
principle of mathematical beauty."
1 / 0 Aug 2, 2013
Arno Gorgels 14.49 Principia Naturae
Physics is semantic description of observation of aspects of nature. Mathematics
is imho an observational standpoint, a belvedere, an observatory. Cantor's
Universe is backbone of mathematical theories, the fundament of the belvedere
and basic perspective of all nature.

Aug 2, 2013

James Arnold 2.21 Software Productions

Again, I think it's true that mathematics is an essential tool in physics. The
question is, has it become so ingrained that it has replaced physical thinking. I
gave two examples above where a reliance on mathematics has led physicists to
identify fundamentally different phenomena, simply because they can be
described in part by superficial mathematical analogies (an inertial rotation and an
orbit, a collapsing field of force and a gravitational field). Mathematics is both
helpful and problematic.
Aug 2, 2013
Arno Gorgels 14.49 Principia Naturae
Dear James, I believe it to be an interplay between nature and abstraction
(observation and maths). Either the observation allows a mathematical description
or maths allows an experimental confirmation. This is in line with Gdel's
incompleteness theorems (which btw is ;) mathematical). Are physics and maths
in this perspective complementary?
Aug 2, 2013
James Arnold 2.21 Software Productions
Yes, I think the interplay of imagination, observation, experimentation, and
mathematics are all important. So I think it follows that a legitimate paper on
physics can focus on any one aspect, or several, or all, so long as it doesn't ignore
a conflict with any other aspect. Therefore, if physics journals are refusing to
consider papers which assert that mathematics is in conflict with observation
(which means the mathematics is fine in-itself), they are practicing bad physics.
Aug 2, 2013

James Dwyer 14.32

Along similar lines to this question, recently a panel forum was held by the Kavli
Foundation to discuss the question:

"Four scientists debate ideas on whether math is an inherent part of our reality, or
merely something our brains use to cope with and explain our environment."
The transcript is available at http://www.kavlifoundation.org/sciencespotlights/kavli-origins-of-math.
Aug 19, 2013
Sundaresan Muthuswamy 1.78 0.4 Indian Institute of Science
It is strange to convince many scientists the statement, " any invention very
original is only by intuition and not otherwise" The mathematical deductions
follow only after that. Mathematics do not come first in our dreams. Also
advanced scientific concepts rarely have straightforward expressions like ;
E=mc^2 and F=mxdv/dt. But then there is a connection between physics and
mathematics just as Keats said " truth is beauty and beauty is truth". Here the
beauty is intuition and mathematics the truth. But unfortunately the beauty is
appreciated by few people while the truth i.e mathematics the tool is taken for
granted., and tools are rarely suspected. History has seen these ups and downs of
great people. Never give up the intuition which has its roots from genuine study
and research.