TWO plus two equals four: nobody would argue with
that. Mathematicians can rigorously prove sums like this, and many other
things besides. The language of maths allows them to provide neatly ordered
ways to describe everything that happens in the world around us.
Or so they once thought. Gregory Chaitin, a mathematics
researcher at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New
York, has shown that mathematicians can't actually prove very much at all.
Doing maths, he says, is just a process of discovery like every other branch
of science: it's an experimental field where mathematicians stumble upon
facts in the same way that zoologists might come across a new species of
Mathematics has always been considered free of uncertainty
and able to provide a pure foundation for other, messier fields of science.
But maths is just as messy, Chaitin says: mathematicians are simply acting
on intuition and experimenting with ideas, just like everyone else. Zoologists
think there might be something new swinging from branch to branch in the
unexplored forests of Madagascar, and mathematicians have hunches about
which part of the mathematical landscape to explore. The subject is no
more profound than that.
The reason for Chaitin's provocative statements is that
he has found that the core of mathematics is riddled with holes. Chaitin
has shown that there are an infinite number of mathematical facts but,
for the most part, they are unrelated to each other and impossible to tie
together with unifying theorems. If mathematicians find any connections
between these facts, they do so by luck. "Most of mathematics is true for
no particular reason," Chaitin says. "Maths is true by accident."
This is particularly bad news for physicists on a quest
for a complete and concise description of the Universe. Maths is the language
of physics, so Chaitin's discovery implies there can never be a reliable
"theory of everything", neatly summarising all the basic features of reality
in one set of equations. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but even Steven
Weinberg, a Nobel prizewinning physicist and author of Dreams of a Final
Theory, has swallowed it. "We will never be sure that our final theory
is mathematically consistent," he admits.
Chaitin's mathematical curse is not an abstract theorem
or an impenetrable equation: it is simply a number. This number, which
Chaitin calls Omega, is real, just as pi is real. But Omega is infinitely
long and utterly incalculable. Chaitin has found that Omega infects the
whole of mathematics, placing fundamental limits on what we can know. And
Omega is just the beginning. There are even more disturbing numbers--Chaitin
calls them Super-Omegas--that would defy calculation even if we ever managed
to work Omega out. The Omega strain of incalculable numbers reveals that
mathematics is not simply moth-eaten, it is mostly made of gaping holes.
Anarchy, not order, is at the heart of the Universe.
Chaitin discovered Omega and its astonishing properties
while wrestling with two of the most influential mathematical discoveries
of the 20th century. In 1931, the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel
blew a gaping hole in mathematics: his Incompleteness Theorem showed there
are some mathematical theorems that you just can't prove. Then, five years
later, British mathematician Alan Turing built on Gödel's work.
Using a hypothetical computer that could mimic the operation
of any machine, Turing showed that there is something that can never be
computed. There are no instructions you can give a computer that will enable
it to decide in advance whether a given program will ever finish its task
and halt. To find out whether a program will eventually halt--after a day,
a week or a trillion years--you just have to run it and wait. He called
this the halting problem.
Decades later, in the 1960s, Chaitin took up where Turing
left off. Fascinated by Turing's work, he began to investigate the halting
problem. He considered all the possible programs that Turing's hypothetical
computer could run, and then looked for the probability that a program,
chosen at random from among all the possible programs, will halt. The work
took him nearly 20 years, but he eventually showed that this "halting probability"
turns Turing's question of whether a program halts into a real number,
somewhere between 0 and 1.
Chaitin named this number Omega. And he showed that,
just as there are no computable instructions for determining in advance
whether a computer will halt, there are also no instructions for determining
the digits of Omega. Omega is uncomputable.
Some numbers, like pi, can be generated by a relatively
short program which calculates its infinite number of digits one by one--how
far you go is just a matter of time and resources. Another example of a
computable number might be one that comprises 200 repeats of the sequence
0101. The number is long, but a program for generating it only need say:
"repeat '01' 400 times".
There is no such program for Omega: in binary, it consists
of an unending, random string of 0s and 1s. "My Omega number has no pattern
or structure to it whatsoever," says Chaitin. "It's a string of 0s and
1s in which each digit is as unrelated to its predecessor as one coin toss
is from the next."
The same process that led Turing to conclude that the
halting problem is undecidable also led Chaitin to the discovery of an
unknowable number. "It's the outstanding example of something which is
unknowable in mathematics," Chaitin says.
An unknowable number wouldn't be a problem if it never
reared its head. But once Chaitin had discovered Omega, he began to wonder
whether it might have implications in the real world. So he decided to
search mathematics for places where Omega might crop up. So far, he has
only looked properly in one place: number theory.
Number theory is the foundation of pure mathematics.
It describes how to deal with concepts such as counting, adding, and multiplying.
Chaitin's search for Omega in number theory started with "Diophantine equations"--which
involve only the simple concepts of addition, multiplication and exponentiation
(raising one number to the power of another) of whole numbers.
Chaitin formulated a Diophantine equation that was 200
pages long and had 17,000 variables. Given an equation like this, mathematicians
would normally search for its solutions. There could be any number of answers:
perhaps 10, 20, or even an infinite number of them. But Chaitin didn't
look for specific solutions, he simply looked to see whether there was
a finite or an infinite number of them.
He did this because he knew it was the key to unearthing
Omega. Mathematicians James Jones of the University of Calgary and Yuri
Matijasevic of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics in St Petersburg had
shown how to translate the operation of Turing's computer into a Diophantine
equation. They found that there is a relationship between the solutions
to the equation and the halting problem for the machine's program. Specifically,
if a particular program doesn't ever halt, a particular Diophantine equation
will have no solution. In effect, the equations provide a bridge linking
Turing's halting problem--and thus Chaitin's halting probability--with
simple mathematical operations, such as the addition and multiplication
of whole numbers.
Chaitin had arranged his equation so that there was
one particular variable, a parameter which he called N, that provided the
key to finding Omega. When he substituted numbers for N, analysis of the
equation would provide the digits of Omega in binary. When he put 1 in
place of N, he would ask whether there was a finite or infinite number
of whole number solutions to the resulting equation. The answer gives the
first digit of Omega: a finite number of solutions would make this digit
0, an infinite number of solutions would make it 1. Substituting 2 for
N and asking the same question about the equation's solutions would give
the second digit of Omega. Chaitin could, in theory, continue forever.
"My equation is constructed so that asking whether it has finitely or infinitely
many solutions as you vary the parameter is the same as determining the
bits of Omega," he says.
But Chaitin already knew that each digit of Omega is
random and independent. This could only mean one thing. Because finding
out whether a Diophantine equation has a finite or infinite number of solutions
generates these digits, each answer to the equation must therefore be unknowable
and independent of every other answer. In other words, the randomness of
the digits of Omega imposes limits on what can be known from number theory--the
most elementary of mathematical fields. "If randomness is even in something
as basic as number theory, where else is it?" asks Chaitin. He thinks he
knows the answer. "My hunch is it's everywhere," he says. "Randomness is
the true foundation of mathematics."
The fact that randomness is everywhere has deep consequences,
says John Casti, a mathematician at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico
and the Vienna University of Technology. It means that a few bits of maths
may follow from each other, but for most mathematical situations those
connections won't exist. And if you can't make connections, you can't solve
or prove things. All a mathematician can do is aim to find the little bits
of maths that do tie together. "Chaitin's work shows that solvable problems
are like a small island in a vast sea of undecidable propositions," Casti
Photo: Kevin Knight
Take the problem of perfect odd numbers. A perfect number
has divisors whose sum makes the number. For example, 6 is perfect because
its divisors are 1, 2 and 3, and their sum is 6. There are plenty of even
perfect numbers, but no one has ever found an odd number that is perfect.
And yet, no one has been able to prove that an odd number can't be perfect.
Unproved hypotheses like this and the Riemann hypothesis, which has become
the unsure foundation of many other theorems (New Scientist, 11 November
2000, p 32) are examples of things that should be accepted as unprovable
but nonetheless true, Chaitin suggests. In other words, there are some
things that scientists will always have to take on trust.
Unsurprisingly, mathematicians had a difficult time
coming to terms with Omega. But there is worse to come. "We can go beyond
Omega," Chaitin says. In his new book, Exploring Randomness (New
Scientist, 10 January, p 46), Chaitin has now unleashed the "Super-Omegas".
Like Omega, the Super-Omegas also owe their genesis
to Turing. He imagined a God-like computer, much more powerful than any
real computer, which could know the unknowable: whether a real computer
would halt when running a particular program, or carry on forever. He called
this fantastical machine an "oracle". And as soon as Chaitin discovered
Omega--the probability that a random computer program would eventually
halt--he realised he could also imagine an oracle that would know Omega.
This machine would have its own unknowable halting probability, Omega'.
But if one oracle knows Omega, it's easy to imagine
a second-order oracle that knows Omega'. This machine, in turn,
has its own halting probability, Omega'', which is known only by
a third-order oracle, and so on. According to Chaitin, there exists an
infinite sequence of increasingly random Omegas. "There is even an all-seeing
infinitely high-order oracle which knows all other Omegas," he says.
He kept these numbers to himself for decades, thinking
they were too bizarre to be relevant to the real world. Just as Turing
looked upon his God-like computer as a flight of fancy, Chaitin thought
these Super-Omegas were fantasy numbers emerging from fantasy machines.
But Veronica Becher of the University of Buenos Aires has shown that Chaitin
was wrong: the Super-Omegas are both real and important. Chaitin is genuinely
surprised by this discovery. "Incredibly, they actually have a real meaning
for real computers," he says.
Becher has been collaborating with Chaitin for just
over a year, and is helping to drag Super-Omegas into the real world. As
a computer scientist, she wondered whether there were links between Omega,
the higher-order Omegas and real computers.
Real computers don't just perform finite computations,
doing one or a few things, and then halt. They can also carry out infinite
computations, producing an infinite series of results. "Many computer applications
are designed to produce an infinite amount of output," Becher says. Examples
include Web browsers such as Netscape and operating systems such as Windows
This example gave Becher her first avenue to explore:
the probability that, over the course of an infinite computation, a machine
would produce only a finite amount of output. To do this, Becher and her
student Sergio Daicz used a technique developed by Chaitin. They took a
real computer and turned it into an approximation of an oracle. The "fake
oracle" decides that a program halts if--and only if--it halts within time
T. A real computer can handle this weakened version of the halting problem.
"Then you let T go to infinity," Chaitin says. This allows the shortcomings
of the fake to diminish as it runs for longer and longer.
Using variations on this technique, Becher and Daicz
found that the probability that an infinite computation produces only a
finite amount of output is the same as Omega', the halting probability
of the oracle. Going further, they showed that Omega'' is equivalent to
the probability that, during an infinite computation, a computer will fail
to produce an output--for example, get no result from a computation and
move on to the next one--and that it will do this only a finite number
These might seem like odd things to bother with, but
Chaitin believes this is an important step. "Becher's work makes the whole
hierarchy of Omega numbers seem much more believable," he says. Things
that Turing--and Chaitin--imagined were pure fantasy are actually very
Now that the Super-Omegas are being unearthed in the
real world, Chaitin is sure they will crop up all over mathematics, just
like Omega. The Super-Omegas are even more random than Omega: if mathematicians
were to get over Omega's obstacles, they would face an ever-elevated barrier
as they confronted Becher's results.
And that has knock-on effects elsewhere. Becher and
Chaitin admit that the full implications of their new discoveries have
yet to become clear, but mathematics is central to many aspects of science.
Certainly any theory of everything, as it attempts to tie together all
the facts about the Universe, would need to jump an infinite number of
hurdles to prove its worth.
The discovery of Omega has exposed gaping holes in mathematics,
making research in the field look like playing a lottery, and it has demolished
hopes of a theory of everything. Who knows what the Super-Omegas are capable
of? "This," Chaitin warns, "is just the beginning."
Exploring Randomness by G. J. Chaitin, Springer-Verlag (2001)
"A Century of Controversy Over the Foundations of Mathematics" by G. J.
Chaitin, Complexity, vol 5, p 12 (2000)
The Unknowable by G. J. Chaitin, Springer-Verlag (1999)
"Randomness everywhere" by C. S. Calude and G. J. Chaitin, Nature, vol
400, p 319 (1999)