This is the first of a three-part exploration of the BBC documentary series The Code.
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

I’ve recently taken a new job in software development, as a software tester. The way software works is that through a fundamental code representing a mathematical/logical structure, computers can create a visual, auditory and interactive environment in which users can perform tasks, receive information and generally “do stuff”. As such, the principles behind The Code are certainly ones which appeal to my everyday understanding of things. I come from a secular background in which theories and formulae underpinning the basic nature of reality are almost as untouchable as the ten commandments of Christians. The code described a view of reality I’ve held for most of my life, but explored in a much deeper and more insightful way, and one which was directly applicable to the Force.

One of the first things explored by the programme, the numerical basis of music, is something very close to my heart. I play several instruments but can’t read music – I’m self taught. This is a huge disadvantage as a musician, but I feel it is useful here; I have built up a strong understanding of the intervals required to make tonally and harmonically pleasing music. Western music is arranged around a repeating scale of 12 notes, and from these 12 music (almost) all Western music can be made. Music can express a huge range of things, from joy to sorrow and everything in between. Why can an arrangement of 12 notes do this?

One philosophical explanation for this is the concept of epiphenomenal qualia. These oddly named traits are the things which lie beyond the simple structure of something, and actually produce a response in us: For example, the colour red is a certain frequency of light, but red conjours up many more things than a simple frequency. It makes us think of passion, of anger, of roses and sunsets and a million different things. This is seemingly inherent in the space where the human mind meets that frequency of colour; and this is true also of music. Certain combinations or sequences of the 12 fundamental notes produce certain emotional responses or images. And underlying this is a relatively simple series of mathematical principles.

Moving on from this, the documentary talked about the medieval notion that harmony in music was proof certain combinations of notes were divine, and sent from God. I think this is a beautifully evocative approach to music for a Jedi to take: that in achieving perfect harmony, we are expressing something of the Force. It makes sense. The Force is all things, everything, the “one” thing which composes all reality. By bringing two or more disparate tonal elements together in harmony, we create something more than just two notes – we create something almost inexplicable. Harmony. This echoes the Jedi belief that harmony is fundamental to the nature of the Force; that we seek to create or assist movement towards harmony in all things.

The idea that knowing only 39 digits of pi allows us to accurately calculate a circle the size of the observable universe, and knowing that pi is inherently infinite in length, gives me a strange and beautiful feeling that it really does represent a fundamental “edge” of some universal rule. How much bigger than the observable universe then does this number we already know millions of digits of allow us to understand? We can work something out which could never exist – but if it were to be possible, we could know things about it. This is a transcendent type of knowledge expressing a fundamental rule.

Imaginary numbers were another fascinating idea, given that they are in use in things as established as radar tracking. These incalculable numbers can be interpreted in useful ways and produce effects not easily achieved without them. Again, I feel that they must therefore express some fundamental wisdom that we are actually yet to fully understand; the way ancient Britons aligned stone circles to solstices without truly understanding the turning of the earth and its elliptical orbit around the sun. They could use it in practice, just as we can use imaginary numbers. We feel the effect; we have the wisdom, but perhaps not the knowledge.

I was already familiar with the Golden Ratio (aka the Fibonacci Sequence) and its expression of the regularity of growth in nature. This is a beautiful image of parity in the Force, that a huge variety of distinct natural processes can be reflected by a single underlying principle. The same can be said of the section on gravity, that our increased numerical understanding of orbits and rules governing movement of planets and stars allow us to predict astronomical events in the future. Our understanding is not limited to everyday applications, but is enabling us to understand the largest and most alien things about the universe, because we are realising that fundamentally and at its core, everything in the universe corresponds to the same rules; everything is on some level fundamentally the same.

It’s this universality which was the most fascinating insight for me, or rather the connotations of it. Of course I was aware gravity is (so far as we can tell) a universal law, as is pi and the other elements discussed. But De Sautoy brought out the true wonder inherent in sketching the line of his code (our Force) through numbers. Numbers are the human way of understanding natural laws. They are relatively simple, even if they sometimes behave in strange or complex ways. They are a way of “codifying” the Force, making it explicable.

In terms of coincidence, I believe this episode lays down a fundamental principle of reality, that a few things can let us understand a lot. That our personal experiences can be expressions of wider and essentially simpler universal laws. That perhaps coincidence is best understood through Occam’s Razor, that the simplest explanation is the most likely: what’s more likely for the wider range of coincidences we all experience throughout our lives, that the universe is random and we are simply experiencing the average amount of coincidence; or that there’s something behind this seemingly chaotic world, certain rules or laws which whilst simple in nature have far-reaching and currently poorly understood implications? I’m not sure, as yet. I previously believed the former and still do, to an extent… but the latter has some real appeal when understood in the context of this episode. The world is bigger than we can understand. Knowing this, why can’t we conceive that a seemingly simplistic law or principle be guiding things? Mathematics suggests this is a common theme “behind” perceptible reality.

We are often told in Taoism that we can’t break the universe down into individual components without doing some violence to them, without losing sight of the whole. These distinct universal rules or laws take huge swathes of distinct objects or behaviours and lines them up into brief and clear ratios and equations; by understanding one thing, we can understand billions of things about our universe. Science (and mathematics) pushes on for a more unified theory, allowing the whole universe to be expressed into the simplest and most comprehensive way possible.

How about this for a numerical approximation of all reality?: