# what is impossible

*A*and its negation

*not A*to both be true. How can this be, and be coherent? What does it all mean?

We all take for granted that mathematics can be used to describe the world, but when you think about it this fact is rather stunning. This article explores what the applicability of maths says about the various branches of mathematical philosophy.

In the 1930s the logician Kurt Gödel showed that if you set out proper rules for mathematics, you lose the ability to decide whether certain statements are true or false. This is rather shocking and you may wonder why Gödel's result hasn't wiped out mathematics once and for all. The answer is that, initially at least, the unprovable statements logicians came up with were quite contrived. But are they about to enter mainstream mathematics?

Many people like mathematics because it gives definite answers. Things are either true or false, and true things seem true in a very fundamental way. But it's not quite like that. You can actually build different versions of maths in which statements are true or false depending on your preference. So is maths just a game in which we choose the rules to suit our purpose? Or is there a "correct" set of rules to use? We find out with the mathematician Hugh Woodin.

**Phil Wilson**looks at

*constructivist mathematics*, which holds that some things are neither true, nor false, nor anything in between.

**Mario Livio**looks at an example of strings and knots, taking us from the mysteries of physical matter to the most esoteric outpost of pure mathematics, and back again.

*incompleteness theorem*in 1931, the mathematical community was stunned: using maths he had proved that there are limits to what maths can prove. This put an end to the hope that all of maths could one day be unified in one elegant theory and had very real implications for computer science.

**John W Dawson**describes Gödel's brilliant work and troubled life.

Suppose you walk past a barber's shop one day, and see a sign that says

"Do you shave yourself? If not, come in and I'll shave you! I shave anyone who does not shave himself, and noone else."

This seems fair enough, and fairly simple, until, a little later, the following question occurs to you - does the barber shave himself?