Monday, September 7, 2009

Correct math wrong results

In the previous post I mentioned that in some situations even the math we used is correct, the result we arrive at might not be correct or it might not apply in the real world. In this post I intend to discuss three such examples.

The first example is known as the Tompson lamp problem. Imagine the following situation: You switch a lamp on, than after one minute you switch it off. After 30 seconds you switch it on again, and then after 15 seconds you turn it off. We continue like this for two minutes. Now, is the lamp on or off? There is no real mathematical solution to this problem. One proposed solution is to say that the state of the lamp after two minutes is independent of its state before. So for all we know, after two minutes the lamp could have mutated into a pumpkin. Seriously.
Another solution originates from noticing that the behavior of the lamp can be though of as the infinite sum: 1-1+1-1+1-1+.... So if we find the sum we will get the solution. Consider the following:


And thus we found the sum. The result is usually interrupted as the lamp being half on. I don't know about you but I never saw a lamp being in that state.
What would happen if we are to do this switching in reality? Thats simple - the switch will break.
As you can see in this case modeling the situation mathematically fails completely.

The second example is an implementation of a theorem to a situation it cannot be applied in. The theorem I am talking about is the Brouwer's fixed point theorem. It is one of many fixed point theorems, which state that for any continuous function f with certain properties there is a point x0 such that f(x0) = x0. Sometime ago I read a statement that according to this theorem, if you take a glass of water and then mix it in anyway, there always will be a small part of the water that didn't change its position. If you are not careful this may seem reasonable. After all, mixing the water is a continues process. Unfortunately, this is simply wrong. The theorem itself is of course correct, but it cannot be used to discribe water in a glass. For this theorem to be used the body it is used on must be continues, but the water is discrete - it is composed from atoms. Because of this the theorem cannot be applied to such a situation, and the result we get by applying it forcefully is wrong.

The third example is known as the Banach–Tarski paradox. It is a theorem in set theoretic geometry which states that a solid ball in 3-dimensional space can be split into a finite number of non-overlapping pieces, which can then be put back together in a different way to yield two identical copies of the original ball. The reassembly process involves only moving the pieces around and rotating them, without changing their shape. Obviously this is not something that is possible to do in reality.
Again, the theorem is perfectly fine. The problem is that it cannot be applied to actual balls. During the proof of the theorem (at least the proof I am familiar with) we get a countable infinity of finite degree polynomials of the form p(sinx)=q. We need to choose x in such a way that for all the polynomials q is not 0. Since any polynomial have a finite number of roots, there is at most a countable infinity of values for x that doesn't give us what we want. Therefore we can always choose a value that will work.
Unfortunately x is the angel of rotation of the ball. If we want to choose a specific x we need firstly to make sure that we can rotate the ball by such an angel. Surprisingly this is not always possible. The reason for this is physical and not mathematical, so I am not going to explain it in detail, but the main idea is that we cannot make "moves too small" in the real world.

Mathematics is often said to be describing the real world. Personally I don't think so. Those and other similar examples have one common trait - correct math that cannot be applied in our world (at least not the way we want it to). But it can be used to describe a world of math.

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