Making a math of it

People are telling me this with a straight face: yes, England lost 4-1 to Germany or whichever team it was, but if one goal hadn’t been disallowed, England would’ve won. People had been telling me with only slightly less of a straight face that, the other day, America beat some team 2-2.

Alan Plater wrote a stage play called Confessions of a City Supporter in which characters, fans of Hull City FC, would regularly insist a defeat was a moral victory: “We smashed ’em, nil-two.”

Football maths. I love this, just love it, because it feels like a collision between math and drama. In drama people lie and misunderstand and don’t know and don’t realise what they know, it’s a seething mass of contradiction. Whereas the beauty of math is that it’s right. You can debate whether it was really Pythagoras who spotted what triangles get up to and there are gorgeous stories of lying bastards who got glory for other people’s brilliant mathematics – but the math is correct. Triangles, hypotenuse, you know how it goes, it’s true and it will always be true.

Seriously, always.

Science is about asking questions, it’s about figuring something out then testing, testing, testing until it looks pretty solid. And yet it will forever be questioned, forever tested and the moment it breaks, science will drop it. Scientific method: it seems to be misunderstood these days, newspapers seem to believe today’s science is absolute and that boffins – they’re always boffins; if you’ve read a book, you’re a boffin – think they know everything.

If a science experiment demonstrates that something happens 99 times out of 100, that’s fair enough, that’s a good, working, practical conclusion and science will use it until it breaks. Writers, on the other hand, work with issues and feelings and topics that actually do not make any sense at all, except that they make every sense.

Then mathematicians work in proof. That 99 out of 100? Not good enough. Not even close to being good enough. The math behind the security of every credit card transaction in the world is based on something that so far has not been proved. How many billion transactions happen every day? How crucial is this math to the world? Actually, it’s crucial enough that banks hire mathematicians and pay them very, very well to try either proving or breaking it. Billions of pounds are spent relying on this math, millions are spent trying to break it before anyone else does and before they take down practically our entire economy.

But because it’s not proved, this math is stubbornly called a theory. It’s the Riemann Hypothesis. I am no mathematician but when it’s explained as well as, say, Marcus du Sautoy does in The Music of the Primes book (UK edition, US edition) then I can see some of the sheer beauty of it. Enough that I wish I’d been a better student at school.

Quick example of how rigorous math is? This is one of my favourite jokes. Actually, it might come from that du Sautoy book. Not sure now. Anyway, are you ready?

A writer, a scientist and a mathematician are on a train travelling from England to Scotland. As they cross the border, the writer looks out and exclaims: “Look! Sheep are black in Scotland!” The scientist takes a look and says no: “In Scotland,” he insists, “there is one sheep who is black.”

The mathematician peeks over their shoulders and says no. “In Scotland, there is one sheep, one side of which is black.”


3 thoughts on “Making a math of it

  1. “the moment it breaks, science will drop it”

    Personally, I would call that wishful thinking.

    Science is as wrapped up in personal politics and ego (and money, let’s not forget the money) as everything else.

    Lots of drama 🙂

  2. Football, of course, isn’t a logical game. If the outcome was always going to be 4-1, then whether that second England goal had been allowed or not would have had no material bearing on the outcome. But a game levelled at 2-2 might progress very differently. That said, England played so poorly yesterday, that I’m certain they’d still have lost.

    And it’s worth mentioning that not all maths works on certainties. While proofs do, the mathematics of probability is very sound, and that means that while we might expect an outcome, we can’t be certain.

    Incidentally, Marcus du Sautoy is a massive Arsenal fan! And he’s talking about the maths of music next Saturday at the Royal Festival Hall ( I’m going, even though it clashes with a quarter-final match.

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