# Thread: A Question For The Show

1. ## A Question For The Show

Dr Pam

Can you talk a bit about the complexity of the mathematics used by scientists to try and understand The Universe?

Thanks

Andy Moore
UK

2. Established Member
Join Date
Dec 2004
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1,029
The Einstein field equations are a good place to start.

3. stu
Established Member
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Mar 2004
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426
Your question is like asking how many vocabulary words you should learn to study the world's body of literature. It all depends.

Are you trying to study planetary bodies? Or are you trying to study stars? Or are you trying to study the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation? They all rely upon different types of physics, all requiring their own "math." In general, you need to know multivariate calculus and differential equations, and then there are add-ons depending upon what exactly you want to learn. Like Fourier Series are highly important for studying the CMB, but you generally only need very simple calculus to study the heat flow in planetary interiors.

4. I guess I am trying to get a handle on:

"Is an understanding possible without doing the maths? Are we reliant on mathematics in our studies of The Universe?"

Andy Moore
UK

5. stu
Established Member
Join Date
Mar 2004
Posts
426
It's certainly possible to get an understanding without doing much math other than simple algebra. That's how you get the introductory astronomy textbooks and all the popular literature. So yes, you can understand the "end-results" without much math at all.

It's getting those results that requires the math. For example, I could tell you that the maria on the moon (the big dark basins) literally were completely excavated and formed within 15 minutes. Or that the moon itself formed within 1 month from a debris field orbiting Earth. Those are "end-results." It's actually figuring out how that's possible - doing the modeling of crater formation, or planetary accretion - that requires knowing a fair amount of math and physics.

Or Saturn's rings. I could tell you that the rings are only a few meters thick even though they are hundreds of thousands of kilometers wide. In addition, they are likely made of material with a density of around 0.6 gm/cm^3, and they have a total mass of about 1-3 times the mass of the moon Mimas. However, I can only tell you this because I have done complex modeling of the ring system and those are the parameters that best match observations from the Cassini space craft. The craft, before it "dies," will be sent between the planet and rings which will allow it to estimate the total mass of the rings to about Mimas' resolution, the results of which will be published eventually, but that is again completely based upon other math and physics.

There are some things that don't really rely on math, but most of those would be cursory studying of planetary surfaces. Basically: What do you see on this planet, and what can you learn from it through an understanding of basic geology? But even then, for any deeper meaning, you need math.

6. Originally Posted by stu
It's getting those results that requires the math.
Understood.

Thanks for taking the time to explain to me. Appreciate it.

Andy

p.s. I wonder what the longest piece of algebra I could make any sense of would be?

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