Fundamental Impossibilities


An Understanding of our fundamental limitations is among the most important contributions of science and of mathematics. There are quite a few cases where things that seemed possible and had been pursued for centuries in fact turned out to be fundamentally impossible. Ancient geometers thought that any two geometric lengths are commensurable, namely, measurable by the same common unit. However, for a right triangle with equal legs, the leg and the hypotenuse are incommensurable. In modern language (based on the Pythagorean theorem), this is the assertion that the square root of two is not a rational number. This was a big surprise in 600 BCE in ancient Greece (the story is that this discovery, attributed to a Pythagorean named Hippasus, perplexed Pythagoras to such an extent that he let Hippasus drown). Two centuries later, Euclid devoted the tenth book of his work The Elements to irrational quantities. The irrationality of the square root of 2 is an important landmark in mathematics. Similarly, the starting point of modern algebra can be traced back to another impossibility result. Algebraists found formulas for solving equations of degrees two, three, and four. Abel and Galois proved Continue reading