Science Café Cleveland presents
DECEMBER 9, 2013
Consider three things that have become so ubiquitous in our lives that many of us cannot conceive of doing without them: (1) The GPS system that is used for navigation from commercial airplanes flying across continents to drivers looking for the nearest pizza shop. (2) The computers that are such an integral part of almost everything we do. (3) The system of passwords and encryption that we use to protect our private information on all the computer systems that store them.
All these things that seem so obviously useful are based on a lot of sophisticated mathematics. But people may be surprised that all three examples owe their existence to mathematical discoveries that originally were thought to be totally useless and could have no practical applications whatsoever.
The GPS systems depend on the work by George Bernhard Riemann who wondered about what properties a straight line in 'curved space' might have, at a time when the idea of curved space seemed utterly preposterous. Computers arose out of the work of many people to try and create a fully abstract and axiomatic system of logic. They failed but understanding why they failed led to the ideas that led to the programmable computer. And modern encryption depends on something called number theory involving the properties of whole numbers. It is a field that one of its pioneers G. H. Hardy proudly claimed to be totally useless, saying ""I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."
This talk will look at how so often those who dismiss certain subjects of study as being so esoteric that no practical benefit can be derived from them turn out to be so very wrong.