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What Does It Mean to Know Mathematics?


What does it mean to know mathematics? Since maths is something we teach using textbooks that demand years of training to decipher, you might think the sine qua non is intelligence – usually ‘higher’ levels of whatever we imagine that to be. At the very least, you might assume that knowing mathematics requires an ability to work with symbols and signs. But here’s a conundrum suggesting that this line of reasoning might not be wholly adequate. Living in tropical coral reefs are species of sea slugs known as nudibranchs, adorned with flanges embodying hyperbolic geometry, an alternative to the Euclidean geometry that we learn about in school, and a form that, over hundreds of years, many great mathematical minds tried to prove impossible.

Sea slugs have at least the rudiments of brains; they generally possess a few thousand neurons, whose large size has made these animals a model organism for scientists studying basic neuronal functioning. This tiny number isn’t nearly enough to enable the slug to formulate any representation of abstract signs, let alone an ability to mentally manipulate them, and yet, somehow, a nudibranch materialises in the fibres of its very being a form that genius-level human mathematicians didn’t discover until the 19th century; and when they did, it nearly drove them mad. In this instance, complex brains were an impediment to understanding.