Why do we need proofs? In other words, difference between a mathematician, physicist and a layman

Yes, I think it is a very nice question, which kids ask me. Why do we need proofs? Well, here is a detailed explanation (I am not mentioning the reference I use here lest it may intimidate my young enthusiastic, hard working students or readers. In other words, the explanation is not my own; I do not claim credit for this…In other words, I am just sharing what I am reading in the book…)

Here it goes:

What exactly is the difference between a mathematician, a physicist, and a layman? Let us suppose that they all start measuring the angles of hundreds of triangles of various shapes, find the sum in each case and keep a record. Suppose the layman finds that with one or two exceptions, the sum in each case comes out to be 180 degrees. He will ignore the exceptions and say “the sum of the three angles in a triangle  is 180 degrees.” A physicist will be more cautious in dealing with the exceptional cases. He will examine them more carefully. If he finds that the sum in them is somewhere between 179 degrees to 180 degrees, say, then he will attribute the deviation to experimental errors. He will then state a law: The sum of three angles of any triangle is 180 degrees. He will then watch happily as the rest of the world puts his law to test and finds that it holds good in thousands of different cases, until somebody comes up with a triangle in which the law fails miserably. The physicist now has to withdraw his law altogether or else to replace it by some other law which holds good in all cases tried. Even this new law may have to be modified at a later date. And, this will continue without end.

A mathematician will be the fussiest of all. If there is even a single exception he will refrain from saying anything. Even when millions of triangles are tried without a single exception, he will not state it as a theorem that the sum of the three angles in ANY triangle is 180 degrees. The reason is that there are infinitely many different types of triangles. To generalize from a million to infinity is as baseless to a mathematician as to generalize from one to a million. He will at the most make a conjecture and say that there is a strong evidence suggesting that the conjecture is true. But that is not the same thing as a proving a theorem. The only proof acceptable to a mathematician is the one which follows from earlier theorems by sheer logical implications (that is, statements of the form : If P, then Q). For example, such a proof follows easily from the theorem that an external angle of a triangle is the sum of the other two internal angles.

The approach taken by the layman or the physicist is known as the inductive approach whereas the mathematician’s approach is called the deductive approach. In the former, we make a few observations and generalize. In the latter, we deduce from something which is already proven. Of course, a question can be raised as to on what basis this supporting theorem is proved. The answer will be some other theorem. But then the same question can be asked about the other theorem. Eventually, a stage is reached where a certain statement cannot be proved from any other earlier proved statement(s) and must, therefore, be taken for granted to be true. Such a statement is known as an axiom or a postulate. Each branch of math has its own axioms or postulates. For examples, one of the axioms of geometry is that through two distinct points, there passes exactly one line. The whole beautiful structure of geometry is based on 5 or 6 axioms such as this one. Every theorem in plane geometry or Euclid’s Geometry can be ultimately deduced from these axioms.

PS: One of the most famous American presidents, Abraham Lincoln had read, understood and solved all of Euclid’s books (The Elements) by burning mid-night oil, night after night, to “sharpen his mental faculties”. And, of course, there is another famous story (true story) of how Albert Einstein as a very young boy got completely “addicted” to math by reading Euclid’s proof of why three medians of a triangle are concurrent…(you can Google up, of course).

Regards,

Nalin Pithwa

 

 

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