You may have noticed that I am not exactly diligent about referencing the pictures and diagrams I use on this blog. In fact the majority of them come from google images, and I usually have no idea where they were originally used (one of the good things about writing a blog is the lack of academic rigour required). However, last night I saw a Coen brothers film called “A Serious Man”, and am pleased to be able to reveal that the header above is actually a screenshot from that film.
As you might guess from the picture, the film itself is not really all that serious, and how Larry Gopnik – the physics professor depicted – managed to write on a board that size is left to the viewer to ponder. Larry’s brother Arthur is also a mathematician, although a rather less functional one. He is quite a strange man , and spends most of the film lying on the couch writing what he calls his “Mentaculus”, which is supposed to be a “probability map of the universe”. This may or may not be a serious endeavour; we are only given a brief glimpse at its contents, and it appears to be no more than a collection of very intricate doodles.
Writing a probability map of the universe is a noble but rather misguided aim; the notion itself doesn’t really make sense, and it would clearly be impossible to pull off. But the urge to explain the workings of the world around us is a major drive for mathematicians. Unfortunately, the real world is messy and chaotic, and there is very little that we can do to accurately describe how things work in practice outside of rough models.