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.
It is thought that the next great advances in biology and medicine will be discovered with mathematics. As biology stands on the brink of becoming a theoretical science, Thomas Fink asks if there is more to this collaboration than maths acting as biology's newest microscope. Will theoretical biology lead to new and exciting maths, just as theoretical physics did in the last two centuries? And is there a mathematically elegant story behind life?
If you like mathematics because things are either true or false, then you'll be worried to hear that in some quarters this basic concept is hotly disputed. In this article Phil Wilson looks at constructivist mathematics, which holds that some things are neither true, nor false, nor anything in between.
When it comes to describing natural phenomena, mathematics is amazingly — even unreasonably — effective. In this article 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.
What's the nature of infinity? Are all infinities the same? And what happens if you've got infinitely many infinities? In this article Richard Elwes explores how these questions brought triumph to one man and ruin to another, ventures to the limits of mathematics and finds that, with infinity, you're spoilt for choice.
Runner up in the general public category. Great minds spark controversy. This is something you'd expect to hear about a great philosopher or artist, but not about a mathematician. Get ready to bin your stereotypes as Rebecca Morris describes some controversial ideas of the great mathematician David Hilbert.
When Kurt Gödel published his 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