November 27, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

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Could Mathematics hold the key to predicting the future? According to Professor Dan Crisan, possibly yes.

During his inaugural lecture at Imperial College Professor Crisan used some complex mathematical formulae to show how a branch of mathematics – stochastic analysis – can be used to understand the link between microscopic and macroscopic events.

Using a homemade video of a piece of paper burning, Professor Crisan explained the ‘event’ of burning at both the microscopic and macroscopic level. At the macroscopic level heat diffuses through the paper from the region of highest temperature to that of the lowest. At the microscopic level, molecules behave in a random manner with higher kinetic energy.

Linking these two events together may give mathematicians the ability to predict random macroscopic events.

If this sounds like something out of science fiction, that’s because it is. In his novel Foundation, Isaac Asimov, one of the most important science fiction writers of the 20th century, coined the term psychohistory. This is a purely fictional scientific field that uses a combination of history, sociology and statistics to make future predictions about the behaviour of large groups of people.

Asimov’s science ultimately relies on the idea that, although it isn’t possible to predict the future actions of a solitary individual, by applying the laws of statistics to large groups it would be possible to predict future events.

Throughout his lecture Professor Crisan drew parallels between this, fictional, science and the work that he has been undertaking. By using formulae linking small events with larger ones to model random events, is mathematics creating it’s own version of psychohistory?

The lecture A mathematician’s view on Asimov’s psychohistory was given at Imperial College London on 23 January.

Image from Michaelwhelan.com