what is impossible
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.
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?