Bizarro bicycle

Mathematics becomes a black box

For hundreds of years, mathematicians have sought for a proof to the orange-packing question. That question is thus: What’s the most efficient way to pack oranges? Most people would assume it’s in the pyramid shape, but it was fiendishly hard to create a mathematical proof.

In 1998, the mathematician Thomas C. Hales finally created a proof, but it had a big problem: It hinged upon a bunch of insanely complicated computations done by computer. It has created a sort of culture clash in science, because, as the New York Times reports:

Believing it thus, at some level, requires faith that the computer performed the calculations flawlessly, without any programming bugs. For a field that trades in dispassionate logic and supposedly unambiguous truths and falsehoods, that is an uncomfortably gray in-between.

It’s a really interesting piece, and it throws to a lot of other disciplines too. Economics, census work, and even quite a bit of straight-ahead politics now relies upon computations that are not really checkable by humans.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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