Welcome to the Jungle

Susan Kruglinski writes a pleasant essay in today's NYTimes about how conceptualizing current math and physics research is damn near impossible, even for the researchers.

Talking about his recent pop-math book "Millenium Problems," Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin explained, "What the book was really saying was, 'You're not going to understand what this problem is about as a layperson, but neither will the experts,' '' he said, adding, "The story is that mathematics has reached a stage of such abstraction that many of its frontier problems cannot be understood even by the experts."

Columbia physicist Dr. Brian Greene, however, takes it one step too far:
"'Our brains evolved so that we could survive out there in the jungle,' he said. 'Why in the world should a brain develop for the purpose of being at all good at grasping the true underlying nature of reality?'"

I know what he's getting at, but Greene really contradicts himself. What evolutionary advantage do humans have, except for being good at grasping reality? (I'd thank the anthropologists out there to remain tactfully silent about long-distance running and being omnivores).

In fact, the only reason mathematicians and phycisists have pushed their fields into the realm of the unimaginable is because they've consistently applied the same tools -- conjecture and reasoning -- honed in studying simpler, more intuitive phenomena. These tools were first applied for survival, and later, comfort and enlightenment, before reaching a zenith of autoaffirming social and scientific commentary.