Building the Railroad to Rigor

As a kid who watched far too much educational television, I dimly remember learning about the USA’s first transcontinental railroad. Somehow, parts of the story stuck with me. Two companies built the railroad from different directions, one from California and the other from the middle of the country, aiming for a mountain in between. Despite the US Civil War happening around this time, the two companies built through, in the end racing to where the final tracks were laid with a golden spike.

I’m a theoretical physicist, so of course I don’t build railroads. Instead, I build new mathematical methods, ways to check our theories of particle physics faster and more efficiently. Still, something of that picture resonates with me.

You might think someone who develops new mathematical methods would be a mathematician, not a physicist. But while there are mathematicians who work on the problems I work on, their goals are a bit different. They care about rigor, about stating only things they can carefully prove. As such, they often need to work with simplified examples, “toy models” well-suited to the kinds of theorems they can build.

Physicists can be a bit messier. We don’t always insist on the same rigor the mathematicians do. This makes our results less reliable, but it makes our “toy models” a fair amount less “toy”. Our goal is to try to tackle questions closer to the actual real world.

What happens when physicists and mathematicians work on the same problem?

If the physicists worked alone, they might build and build, and end up with an answer that isn’t actually true. The mathematicians, keeping rigor in mind, would be safe in the truth of what they built, but might not end up anywhere near the physicists’ real-world goals.

Together, though, physicists and mathematicians can build towards each other. The physicists can keep their eyes on the mathematicians, correcting when they notice something might go wrong and building more and more rigor into their approach. The mathematicians can keep their eyes on the physicists, building more and more complex applications of their rigorous approaches to get closer and closer to the real world. Eventually, like the transcontinental railroad, the two groups meet: the mathematicians prove a rigorous version of the physicists’ approach, or the physicists adopt the mathematicians’ ideas and apply them to their own theories.

A sort of conference photo

In practice, it isn’t just two teams, physicists and mathematicians, building towards each other. Different physicists themselves work with different levels of rigor, aiming to understand different problems in different theories, and the mathematicians do the same. Each of us is building our own track, watching the other tracks build towards us on the horizon. Eventually, we’ll meet, and science will chug along over what we’ve built.

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