Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mind over matter -- a Saturday reprise



Cleaning out my office here at the college, I came upon a box of graph paper. That wonderful tissue-thin, orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one's data, discover patterns, find the law.

When I used this paper in my work and studies, it was just a tool, rather like the graphical computer programs we use today. Now, as I look at these pristine sheets of paper, the experience is rather more philosophical. Without a mark on them, they suggest the fabric of the universe itself, which is mathematical in a way beyond our knowing. Why are the laws of physics power laws? Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data on the paper. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Subject to ever greater precision. The pristine paper is like an immaterial thought upon which the world is hung.

(This post originally appeared in September 2007.)