While doing some research to better grouse about Ken Keeler’s Futurama theorem I ran across an amusing site I hadn’t known about. It is Theory Mine, a site that allows you to hire — and name — a genuine, mathematically sound theorem. The spirit of the thing is akin to that scam in which you “name” a star. But this is more legitimate in that, you know, it’s got any legitimacy. For this, you’re buying naming rights from someone who has any rights to sell. By convention the discoverer of a theorem can name it whatever she wishes, and there’s one chance in ten that anyone else will use the name.
I haven’t used it. I’ve made my own theorems, thanks, and could put them on a coffee mug or t-shirt if I wished to make a particularly boring t-shirt. But I’m delighted by the scheme. They don’t have a team of freelance mathematicians whipping up stuff and hoping it isn’t already known. Not for the kinds of prices they charge. This should inspire the question: well, where do the theorems come from?
The scheme uses an automated reasoning system. I don’t know the details of how it works, but I can think of a system by which this might work. It goes back to the Crisis of Foundations, the time in the late 19th/early 20th century when logicians got very worried that we were still letting physical intuitions and unstated assumptions stay in our mathematics. One solution: turn everything into symbols, icons with no connotations. The axioms of mathematics become a couple basic symbols. The laws of logical deduction become things we can do with the symbols, converting one line of symbols into a related other line. Every line we get is a theorem. And we know it’s correct. To write out the theorem in this scheme is to write out its proof, and to feel like you’re touching some deep magic. And there’s no human frailties in the system, besides the thrill of reeling off True Names like that.
You may not be sure what this works like. It may help to compare it to a slightly-fun number coding scheme. I mean the one where you start with a number, like, ‘1’. Then you write down how many times and which digit appears. There’s a single ‘1’ in that string, so you would write down ’11’. And repeat: In ’11’ there’s a sequence of two ‘1’s, so you would write down ’21’. And repeat: there’s a single ‘2’ and a single ‘1’, so you then write down ‘1211’. And again: there’s a single ‘1’, a single ‘2’, and then a double ‘1’, so you next write ‘111221’. And so on until you get bored or die.
When we do this for mathematics we start with a couple different basic units. And we also start with several things we may do at most symbols. So there’s rarely a single line that follows from the previous. There’s an ever-expanding tree of known truths. This may stave off boredom but I make no promises about death.
The result of this is pages and pages that look like Ancient High Martian. I don’t feel the thrill of doing this. Some people do, though. And as recreational mathematics goes I suppose it’s at least as good as sudoku. Anyway, this kind of project, rewarding indefatigability and thoroughness, is perfect for automation anyway. Let the computer work out all the things we can prove are true.
If I’m reading Theory Mine’s description correctly they seem to be doing something roughly like this. If they’re not, well, you go ahead and make your own rival service using my paragraphs as your system. All I ask is one penny for every use of L’Hôpital’s Rule, a theorem named for Guillaume de l’Hôpital and discovered by Johann Bernoulli. (I have heard that Bernoulli was paid for his work, but I do not know that’s true. I have now explained why, if we suppose that to be true, my prior sentence is a very funny joke and you should at minimum chuckle.)
This should inspire the question: what do we need mathematicians for, then? It’s for the same reason we need writers, when it would be possible to automate the composing of sentences that satisfy the rules of English grammar. I mean if there were rules to English grammar. That we can identify a theorem that’s true does not mean it has even the slightest interest to anyone, ever. There’s much more that could be known than that we could ever care about.
You can see this in Theory Mine’s example of Quentin’s Theorem. Quentin’s Theorem is about an operation you can do on a set whose elements consist of the non-negative whole numbers with a separate value, which they call color, attached. You can add these colored-numbers together according to some particular rules about how the values and the colors add. The order of this addition normally matters: blue two plus green three isn’t the same as green three plus blue two. Quentin’s Theorem finds cases where, if you add enough colored-numbers together, the order doesn’t matter. I know. I am also staggered by how useful this fact promises to be.
Yeah, maybe there is some use. I don’t know what it is. If anyone’s going to find the use it’ll be a mathematician. Or a physicist who’s found some bizarre quark properties she wants to codify. Anyway, if what you’re interested in is “what can you do to make a vertical column stable?” then the automatic proof generator isn’t helping you at all. Not without a lot of work put in to guiding it. So we can skip the hard work of finding and proving theorems, if we can do the hard work of figuring out where to look for these theorems instead. Always the way.
You also may wonder how we know the computer is doing its work right. It’s possible to write software that is logically proven to be correct. That is, the software can’t produce anything but the designed behavior. We don’t usually write software this way. It’s harder to write, because you have to actually design your software’s behavior. And we can get away without doing it. Usually there’s some human overseeing the results who can say what to do if the software seems to be going wrong. Advocates of logically-proven software point out that we’re getting more software, often passing results on to other programs. This can turn a bug in one program into a bug in the whole world faster than a responsible human can say, “I dunno. Did you try turning it off and on again?” I’d like to think we could get more logically-proven software. But I also fear I couldn’t write software that sound and, you know, mathematics blogging isn’t earning me enough to eat on.
Also, yes, even proven software will malfunction if the hardware the computer’s on malfunctions. That’s rare, but does happen. Fortunately, it’s possible to automate the checking of a proof, and that’s easier to do than creating a proof in the first place. We just have to prove we have the proof-checker working. Certainty would be a nice thing if we ever got it, I suppose.