On the first day of class in eleventh grade, a physics teacher posed the question above to us. He explained that if you look closely enough at a biological process, you’ll see that the “why” is explained by chemistry. Photosynthesis, for example, can be written down as a chemical equation.

And if you look closely enough at a chemical process, you’ll see that the reason the chemical process behaves is governed by physics. Continuing the photosynthesis example from above, the chemical reaction happens the way it does because of the molecular structure of the compounds involved, which is of course within the purview of physics.

So what, our physics teacher asked us, would you see if you look closely at a physical process?

Well, no one was answering. So I volunteered the answer “metaphysics”. Turns out the answer he was looking for, was “mathematics” instead. Yeah, I remember feeling flustered, having been “caught” mentioning metaphysics in a science class. I certainly didn’t debate or defend my answer further.

Buuuuuuut, I find “mathematics” to be a really unsatisfying way to complete the analogy. Yes, mathematics is a tool physicists use to model physical processes and understand them. But, as far as my understanding of physics goes, mathematics isn’t driving a physical process the same way as the rules of physics is driving a chemical process. Or the same way as rules of chemistry govern the way biological processes occur.

To my mind, the analogy would make sense if a statement like “the gravitational constant is G because pi is irrational” were true.

I guess the physics teacher was trying to hammer the point that mathematics was going to be important for the class, and for really understanding physics. But you know what’s poor mathematical thinking? Coming up with broken analogies.