A D Aleksandrov's view of Mathematics

In 1956 a three volume work Mathematics: its content, methods and meaning was published in Russian:-

An example of popularisation of the best kind. There are twenty chapters written by about the same number of outstanding Russian mathematicians. Algebra, geometry, analysis and topology are well represented and there are chapters on number theory, numerical analysis and computing machines. There is very little on foundations or logic.

The American Mathematical Society published an English translation of this excellent book in 1962. We give below an extract from the article A general view of Mathematics by Aleksandr Danilovic Aleksandrov:-


A general view of Mathematics


An adequate presentation of any, science cannot consist of detailed information alone, however extensive. It must also provide a proper view of the essential nature of the science as a whole. The purpose of the present chapter is to give a general picture of the essential nature of mathematics. For this purpose there is no great need to introduce any of the details of recent mathematical theories, since elementary mathematics and the history of the science already provide a sufficient foundation for general conclusions.


Section 1: The Characteristic Features of Mathematics

1. Abstractions, proofs, applications.

With even a superficial knowledge of mathematics, it is easy to recognize certain characteristic features: its abstractness, its precision, its logical rigor, the indisputable character of its conclusions, and finally, the exceptionally broad range of its applications.

The abstractness of mathematics is easy to see. We operate with abstract numbers without worrying about how to relate them in each case to concrete objects. In school we study the abstract multiplication table, that is, a table for multiplying one abstract number by another, not a number of boys by a number of apples, or a number of apples by the price of an apple.

Similarly in geometry we consider, for example, straight lines and not stretched threads, the concept of a geometric line being obtained by abstraction from all other properties, excepting only extension in one direction. More generally, the concept of a geometric figure is the result of abstraction from all the properties of actual objects except their spatial form and dimensions.

Abstractions of this sort are characteristic for the whole of mathematics. The concept of a whole number and of a geometric figure are only two of the earliest and most elementary of its concepts. They have been followed by a mass of others, too numerous to describe, extending to such abstractions as complex numbers, functions, integrals, differentials, functionals, n-dimensional, and even infinite-dimensional spaces, and so forth. These abstractions, piled up as it were on one another, have reached such a degree of generalization that they apparently lose all connection with daily life and the "ordinary mortal" understands nothing about them beyond the mere fact that "all this is incomprehensible."

In reality, of course, the case is not so at all. Although the concept of n-dimensional space is no doubt extremely abstract, yet it does have a completely real content, which is not very difficult to understand. In the present book it will be our task to emphasize and clarify the concrete content of such abstract concepts as those mentioned earlier, so that the reader may convince himself that they are all connected with actual life, both in their origin and in their applications.

But abstraction is not the exclusive property of mathematics; it is characteristic of every science, even of all mental activity in general. Consequently, the abstractness of mathematical concepts does not in itself give a complete description of the peculiar character of mathematics.

The abstractions of mathematics are distinguished by three features. In the first place, they deal above all else with quantitative relations and spatial forms, abstracting them from all other properties of objects. Second, they occur in a sequence of increasing degrees of abstraction, going very much further in this direction than the abstractions of other sciences. We will illustrate these two features in detail later, using as examples the fundamental notions of number and figure. Finally, and this is obvious, mathematics as such moves almost wholly in the field of abstract concepts and their interrelations. While the natural scientist turns constantly to experiment for proof of his assertions, the mathematician employs only argument and computation.

It is true that mathematicians also make constant use, to assist them in the discovery of their theorems and methods, of models and physical analogues, and they have recourse to various completely concrete examples. These examples serve as the actual source of the theory and as a means of discovering its theorems, but no theorem definitely belongs to mathematics until it has been rigorously proved by a logical argument. If a geometer, reporting a newly discovered theorem, were to demonstrate it by means of models and to confine himself to such a demonstration, no mathematician would admit that the theorem had been proved. The demand for a proof of a theorem is well known in high school geometry, but it pervades the whole of mathematics. We could measure the angles at the base of a thousand isosceles triangles with extreme accuracy, but such a procedure would never provide us with a mathematical proof of the theorem that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal. Mathematics demands that this result be deduced from the fundamental concepts of geometry, which at the present time, in view of the fact that geometry is nowadays developed on a rigorous basis, are precisely formulated in the axioms. And so it is in every case. To prove a theorem means for the mathematician to deduce it by a logical argument from the fundamental properties of the concepts occurring in that theorem. In this way, not only the concepts but also the methods of mathematics are abstract and theoretical.

The results of mathematics are distinguished by a high degree of logical rigor, and a mathematical argument is conducted with such scrupulousness as to make it incontestable and completely convincing to anyone who understands it. The scrupulousness and cogency of mathematical proofs are already well known in a high school course. Mathematical truths are in fact the prototype of the completely incontestable. Not for nothing do people say "as clear as two and two are four." Here the relation "two and two are four" is introduced as the very image of the irrefutable and- incontestable.

But the rigour of mathematics is not absolute; it is in a process of continual development; the principles of mathematics have not congealed once and for all but have a life of their own and may even be the subject of scientific quarrels.

In the final analysis the vitality of mathematics arises from the fact that its concepts and results, for all their abstractness, originate, as we shall see, in the actual world and find widely varied application in the other sciences, in engineering, and in all the practical affairs of daily life; to realize this is the most important prerequisite for understanding mathematics.

The exceptional breadth of its applications is another characteristic feature of mathematics.

In the first place we make constant use, almost every hour, in industry and in private and social life, of the most varied concepts and results of mathematics, without thinking about them at all; for example, we use arithmetic to compute. our expenses or geometry to calculate the floor area of an apartment. Of course, the rules here are very simple, but we should remember that in some period of antiquity they represented the most advanced mathematical achievements of the age.

Second, modern technology would be impossible without mathematics. There is probably not a single technical process which can be carried through without more or less complicated calculations; and mathematics plays a very important role in the development of new branches of technology.

Finally, it is true that every science, to a greater or lesser degree, makes essential use of mathematics. The "exact sciences," mechanics, astronomy, physics, and to a great extent chemistry, express their laws, as every schoolboy knows, by means of formulas and make extensive use of mathematical apparatus in developing their theories. The progress of these sciences would have been completely impossible without mathematics. For this reason the requirements of mechanics, astronomy, and physics have always exercised a direct and decisive influence on the development of mathematics.

In other sciences mathematics plays a smaller role, but here too it finds important applications. Of course, in the study of such complicated phenomena as occur in biology and sociology, the mathematical method cannot play the same role as, let us say, in physics. In all cases, but especially where the phenomena are most complicated, we must bear in mind, if we are not to lose our way in meaningless play with formulas, that the application of mathematics is significant only if the concrete phenomena have already been made the subject of a profound theory. In one way or another, mathematics is applied in almost every science, from mechanics to political economy.

Let us recall some particularly brilliant applications of mathematics in the exact sciences and in technology.

The planet Neptune, one of the most distant in the Solar System, was discovered in the year 1846 on the basis of mathematical calculations. By analyzing certain irregularities in the motion of Uranus, the, astronomers Adams and Le Verrier came to the conclusion that these irregularities were caused by the gravitational attraction of another planet. Le Verrier calculated on the basis of the laws of mechanics exactly where this planet must be, and an observer to whom he communicated his results caught sight of it in his telescope in the exact position indicated by Le Verrier. This discovery was a triumph not only for mechanics and astronomy, and in particular for the system of Copernicus, but also for the powers of mathematical calculation.

Another example, no less impressive, was the discovery of electromagnetic waves. The Scottish physicist Maxwell, by generalizing the laws of electromagnetic phenomena as established by experiment, was able to express these laws in the form of equations. From these equations he deduced, by purely mathematical methods, that electromagnetic waves could exist and that they must be propagated with the speed of light. On the basis of this result, he proposed the electromagnetic theory of light, which was later developed and deepened in every direction. Moreover, Maxwell's results led to the search for electromagnetic waves of purely electrical origin, arising for example from an oscillating charge. These waves were actually discovered by Hertz. Shortly afterwards, A S Popov, by discovering means for exciting, transmitting, and receiving electromagnetic oscillations made them available for a wide range of applications and thereby laid the foundations for the whole technology of radio. In the discovery of radio, now the common possession of everyone, an important role was played by the results of a purely mathematical deduction.

So from observation, as for example of the deflection of a magnetic needle by an electric current, science proceeds to generalization, to a theory of the phenomena, and to formulation of laws and to mathematical expression of them. From these laws come new deductions, and finally, the theory is embodied in practice, which in its turn provides powerful new impulses for the development of the theory.

It is particularly remarkable that even the most abstract constructions of mathematics, arising within that science itself, without any immediate motivation from the natural sciences or from technology, nevertheless have fruitful applications. For example, imaginary numbers first came to light in algebra, and for a long time their significance in the actual world remained uncomprehended, a circumstance indicated by their very name. But when about 1800 a geometrical interpretation was given to them, imaginary numbers became firmly established in mathematics, giving rise to the extensive theory of functions of a complex variable, i.e., of a variable of the form x + y√-1. This theory of "imaginary" functions of an "imaginary" variable proved itself to be far from imaginary, but rather a very practical means of solving technological problems. Thus, the fundamental results of N E Zhukovskii concerning the lift on the wing of an airplane are proved by means of this theory. The same theory is useful, for example, in the solution of problems concerning the oozing of water under a dam, problems whose importance is obvious during the present period of construction of huge hydroelectric stations.

Another example, equally impressive, is provided by non-Euclidean geometry, which arose from the efforts, extending for 2000 years from the time of Euclid, to prove the parallel axiom, a problem of purely mathematical interest. N I Lobachevsky himself, the founder of the new geometry, was careful to label his geometry "imaginary," since he could not see any meaning for it in the actual world, although he was confident that such a meaning would eventually be found. The results of his geometry appeared to the majority of mathematicians to be not only "imaginary" but even unimaginable and absurd. Nevertheless, his ideas laid the foundation for a new development of geometry, namely the creation of theories of various non-Euclidean spaces; and these ideas subsequently became the basis of the general theory of relativity, in which the mathematical apparatus consists of a form of non-Euclidean geometry of four-dimensional space. Thus the abstract constructions of mathematics, which at the very least seemed incomprehensible, proved themselves a powerful instrument for the development of one of the most important theories of physics. Similarly, in the present-day theory of atomic phenomena, in the so-called quantum mechanics, essential use is made of many extremely abstract mathematical concepts and theories, as for example the concept of infinite-dimensional space.

There is no need to give any further examples, since we have already shown with sufficient emphasis that mathematics finds widespread application in everyday life and in technology and science; in the exact sciences and in the great problems of technology, applications are found even for those theories which arise within mathematics itself. This is, one of the characteristic peculiarities of mathematics, along with its abstractness and the rigor and conclusiveness of its results.


Section 2: The essential nature of mathematics.

In discussing these special features of mathematics we have been far from explaining its essence; rather we have merely pointed out its external marks. Our task now is to explain the essential nature of these characteristic features. For this purpose it will be necessary to answer, at the very least, the following questions:

What do these abstract mathematical concepts reflect? In other words, what is the actual subject matter of mathematics?

Why do the abstract results of mathematics appear so convincing, and its initial concepts so obvious? In other words, on what foundation do the methods of mathematics rest?

Why, in spite of all its abstractness, does mathematics find such wide application and does not turn out to be merely idle play with abstractions? In other words, how is the significance of mathematics to be explained?

Finally, what forces lead to the further development of mathematics, allowing it to unite abstractness with breadth of application? What is the basis for its continuing growth?

In answering these questions we will form a general picture of the content of mathematics, of its methods, and of its significance and its development; that is, we will understand its essence.

Idealists and metaphysicists not only fall into confusion in their attempts to answer these basic questions but they go so far as to distort mathematics completely, turning it literally inside out. Thus, seeing the extreme abstractness and cogency of mathematical results, the idealist imagines that mathematics issues from pure thought.

In reality, mathematics offers not the slightest support for idealism or metaphysics. We will convince ourselves of this as we attempt, in general outline, to answer the listed questions about the essence of mathematics. For a preliminary clarification of these questions, it is sufficient to examine the foundations of arithmetic and elementary geometry, to which we now turn. ...


JOC/EFR August 2006

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