Mathematical Patterns in/of the Universe

Source: Quanta magazine, Feb 2013

Subatomic particles have little to do with decentralized bus systems. But in the years since the odd coupling was discovered, the same pattern has turned up in other unrelated settings. Scientists now believe the widespread phenomenon, known as “universality,” stems from an underlying connection to mathematics, and it is helping them to model complex systems from the Internet to Earth’s climate.

The red pattern exhibits a precise balance of randomness and regularity known as “universality,” which has been observed in the spectra of many complex, correlated systems. In this spectrum, a mathematical formula called the “correlation function” gives the exact probability of finding two lines spaced a given distance apart.

Universality is thought to arise when a system is very complex, consisting of many parts that strongly interact with each other to generate a spectrum. The pattern emerges in the spectrum of a random matrix, for example, because the matrix elements all enter into the calculation of that spectrum. But random matrices are merely “toy systems” that are of interest because they can be rigorously studied, while also being rich enough to model real-world systems, Vu said. Universality is much more widespread. Wigner’s hypothesis (named after Eugene Wigner, the physicist who discovered universality in atomic spectra) asserts that all complex, correlated systems exhibit universality, from a crystal lattice to the Internet.

The more complex a system is, the more robust its universality should be, said László Erdös of the University of Munich, one of Yau’s collaborators. “This is because we believe that universality is the typical behavior.”

“It may happen that it is not a matrix that lies at the core of both Wigner’s universality and the zeta function, but some other, yet undiscovered, mathematical structure,” Erdös said. “Wigner matrices and zeta functions may then just be different representations of this structure.”

Many mathematicians are searching for the answer, with no guarantee that there is one. “Nobody imagined that the buses in Cuernavaca would turn out to be an example of this. Nobody imagined that the zeroes of the zeta function would be another example,” Dyson said. “The beauty of science is it’s completely unpredictable, and so everything useful comes out of surprises.”

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