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Max Tegmark believes that reality is maths. Not described by maths but maths itself. It’s every schoolboy’s nightmare


Megabrain Max Tegmark has a theory. He’s had many theories in his career but this one has the air of a break-out humdinger.

Max Tegmark’s theory is crackpot. He’s not positing that the Queen is an alien lizard or that Elvis Presley is working in Primark – though he’s probably worked out the chances of those scenarios such is his love of the “what if”.

No, his crackpot theory is plausible. And dazzling. But crackpot. And I say crackpot in the same vein as naysayers through the centuries have said “crackpot” to the faces of paradigm shifters. Because they’re scary and unsettling and very often right.

That’s me. I’m that guy. Clinging on to something anthropocentric in a universe turned upside down.

Max Tegmark’s theory is this: physical reality is maths. No, not described by maths, it ismaths. Key intrinsic properties of the universe are mathematical properties, that can’t be defined as things at all but only as mathematical relationships.

We are self aware components of a giant mathematical structure with the illusion of complexity.

Max Tegmark is a huge fan of maths, which tends to suggest he’s selected his favourite prism through which to view reality.

But, as he says, if he’s right and the multiverse is maths then it cares not what maths is, what it does or who believes it.

It carries on being maths whether we use {+–/x} or choreographed frozen peas to explain its mathiness. The multiverse probably doesn’t even call it maths. It probably just calls it “me”.


But how can that be, you ask. How can my earlobe, my job, that potato waffle, those prospective parliamentary candidates be maths?

And Max Tegmark does tell you only it requires a book (not a book review) to do so and some semantic sleight of hand (one is occasionally reminded of Bill Clinton’s “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”)

Max Tegmark knows this sounds crazy. Not least because serious people have told him so. In Our Mathematical Universe, (a jolly read, full of wry self-deprecation and brilliant science) he reprints an email he received from a senior professor.

“… your crackpot papers are not helping you.”

The professor goes on to say that he must choose between being a free-thinking clown or a respected scientist.

But Max Tegmark, a physics professor at MIT and author of more than 200 technical papers, is not one to be choked by academic stuffiness. He is the Richard Feynman of his generation, able to quote Einstein and Douglas Adams, able to entertain, stimulate and educate.

He takes his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis to a mainstream, rather than academic, publisher and he writes about how he got from there to here in an episodic, chatty fashion (with helpful illustrations).

Those who read popular science books will know the bill of fare: particle physics, relativity, quantum weirdness, dark energy, inflation.

Then Max Tegmark takes us by the hand to a magical garden far beyond the consensus where philosophy, physics and bonkers are indistinguishable one from the other.

All this – his credibility, his authenticity, his pleasant company, his contacts book of Nobel winners, his love of dizzying numbers, his jocularity, his toe-in-the-water out-there playthings – all this to sweeten the pill and soften the blow.

So that when we learn we are the byproducts of a formula that could be written on a t-shirt, we don’t implode, steam shooting from our ears, screaming “no, no, no!” Instead, we maintain our calm and say:

“Seen this, what Max has written?”

“What’s he said now?”

“He says we are maths.”

“What like The Matrix?”

“No. Not like The Matrix. The Matrix is a simulated reality created by sentient machines to subdue the human population. He says physical reality is maths.”

“Oh, OK. You want that last biscuit?”

“Think about that for a minute.”

“What, the biscuit?”

“No the… Oh never mind.”