Number theory and numerology

In a similar way to the historical link between  astronomy and astrology the subjects of number theory and numerology are also  linked.  The very early impetus for number theory was numerology.  The Pythagorean  school (500BC) were interested in the philosophical and mystical properties of numbers. Plato was influenced by this and mentions numerology in his works, notably The Republic (380BC).  Judaism ,  Christianity and Islam all have elements of numerology.

Number theory itself is probably older than this and goes back  almost to counting and simple arithmetic in  prehistory.

In the same way as astronomy developed into a science, so did number theory.

Definition Number theory is the branch of mathematics that deals with the study of numbers, usually the integers, rational numbers ,  prime numbers etc.

Definition Numerology is the study of the supposed relationship  between numbers, counting and everyday life.

There is another kind of numerology that is the study of numerical coincidences. This happens a lot in physics, where a series of apparent coincidences  can occur between various rations of physical constants or physical observables.

The famous example of this is Dirac’s large number hypothesis which enforces a ration between the cosmic scale and the scale of fundamental forces. Dirac’s hypothesis predicts that  Newton’s constant is varying in time. There has been some work in understanding the implications of physical constants changing in time.

Although Dirac’s hypothesis is the most famous, it was Eddington and Weyl who first noticed such numerical coincidences.

The trouble is that this cannot really be called science.  Physics is all about mathematical models that can be used to explain physical phenomena.  Noticing numerical coincidences by itself does not really add to our understanding of nature.  One would like to explain the  coincidences clearly and mathematically within some theory.  Generally these coincides are interesting, but it is not clear how they are fundamental. Of course, this is apart from those that are really just due to our choices in units etc.

Number theory also has some intersection with physics. Recently there has been some considerable crossover between   arithmetic and algebraic geometry  and string theory (via modular forms largely). I will have to postpone talking about this.

3 thoughts on “Number theory and numerology”

1. Appolinaria says:

I really liked this post.

2. andy says:

So, once you get beyond the numerological coincidence and start to have a explanations that relate to real world phenomena or other established theory do numerological equations or relationships cease to be numerology and become something else?

1. ajb says:

I am not sure what numerological equations are. Anyway, if you have some mathematical model then you are discussing physics. If your predictions are just based on some numerical coincidences then it is numerology.