Time Travel for the Sake of Mathematics

September 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

One of my favorite rainy day hobbies is doing math.  Yeah, I know, it’s a little strange.  But all of us our strange in some way or another.

One of the things I enjoy most about math is the sense of accomplishment you get after solving a problem in a clever way.  You started with a problem that that 99 percent of the world’s population couldn’t even begin to understand.  In fact, a couple centuries ago, people wouldn’t have even known what the words in the problem meant.  And yet, after hours of thinking about a homework problem and trying to find new ways to look at it, you finally come up with a solution, bringing the simplicity of a solution out of the chaos of the problem.  You’ve discovered something that is a solution to a routine homework problem now, but would have been considered a stroke of genius if you had discovered it a few centuries earlier, before calculus had even been invented.  Whenever I have these moments, I always think about time travel, and how great it would be if I could travel back in time bringing all of our present day mathematical knowledge with me.

Granted, it would probably not be good for my ego to be thought of as a mathematical genius, just for having transported some mathematical knowledge from one century to another.  But I think that a lot of great things could be accomplished by giving people of the past greater mathematical knowledge.

A lot of the big areas of math, like Calculus and Knot Theory, have only been developed in the past few centuries, and yet their impact and applications have been monumental.  Especially with Calculus, these recent mathematical discoveries have led to countless physics discoveries and engineering innovations that have improved life for many people.  If we had developed this knowledge sooner, we would have much more advanced technology, better medicine, a better understanding of the Universe,  and a better society all around.

For many reasons, going back in time and giving people advanced mathematical knowledge would be much more effective than giving them scientific knowledge.  If you attempted to explain modern scientific knowledge to people from past eras, they would not believe you, because our understanding of the Universe would seem so absurd to them that they wouldn’t accept it.  However, with mathematical proofs and theorems, there is no denying them.  A proof is a proof, and even if it may take you a very long time to read through it, there can be no denying its validity if it is true.  In many ways, I think it would be much easier to use time travel to bring mathematical knowledge to our ancestors than scientific knowledge, and more effective nonetheless.

Granted, this probably would not serve as an extremely exciting science fiction story.   But, I think that if time travel were possible, this is one of the best things we could do with it.

And of course, this introduces one of the standard paradoxes of time travel.  If time travel truly became possible one day, then some eager mathematical mind would likely go back and given Isaac Newton all of the most advanced math of their time, so that he wouldn’t have to waste his time inventing Calculus.  But if this happened, we would see its effects in the present, and since we haven’t, time travel must never be possible.

But I guess I can still hope.

So, if you are a mathematician reading this and we have finally invented the time machine, please travel to my bedroom, September 10, 2012.  I have some topology homework for you to help me with.

– PJ Jedlovec (pjjed)


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§ 2 Responses to Time Travel for the Sake of Mathematics

  • yzhang2016 says:

    Do you believe that if you sped up mathematical discoveries in the past, we would be farther along in math in the present day? Or, do you believe that everything in the field of mathematics has pretty much already been discovered, that the number of discoveries is starting to plateau?

    And, if that did happen, would other scientific achievements still happen at the same rate as they have over the centuries? Or would scientific discoveries be made sooner, as if pulled along by advanced mathematics?


    • pjjed says:

      I think that speeding up past mathematical discoveries would definitely make us farther along in math in the present day as well as in other areas that build on math and mathematical discoveries. But I don’t think the number of mathematical discoveries is starting to plateau. In fact, there are more areas of math and more open problems in mathematics today than I think there ever have been. Math is more like an infinite ocean to be explored than an object to be examined. There is something infinite and transcendent about deep mathematical truths that we might never fully grasp.


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