Urgent news from Leicester

Tim Gowers has once again done the university community a great service by using his blog to publicize the impending decimation of the University of Leicester’s mathematics department.  More like a double decimation:  of the department’s 23 full-time staff, 5 are slated to lose their jobs, with the research staff shrinking by close to 30%.  Rather than repeat the details, which you can find presented with Gowers’s customary clarity on his blog, I am using this space to encourage readers and their friends to sign the protest petition.  The petition already has over 2500 signatures, many of them alerted to the situation (as I was) by reading Gowers’s account.

Leicester is being cut back across the board, but the cuts in mathematics are particularly severe.  For a crash course in the neo-liberal conception of the university, you can read the relevant chapter in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, featured in an entry on this blog last year.

This blog has been suspended but it will be revived occasionally for urgent news items like this one.

UPDATE:  Vladimir Tasić points out that this sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency in Canada as well.

 

Time to move on

wainua               Figure 6.1 (Clairaut's diagram)

Snail image:  Creative Commons licence courtesy of Te Papa; Clairaut’s love formula from Chapter 6 of MWA

My tireless editor Vickie Kearn at Princeton University Press has brought me the welcome news that Mathematics without Apologies will be coming out in a paperback edition next spring.   I started this blog for two reasons, and one of them — to clarify my intentions in writing the book — will vanish when I add two or three pages to the preface of the new edition.   The new pages — I have already written them — will devote one paragraph or so to each of four topics, provisionally under the headings charismamemoirsutility, and ethics; each paragraph will address some of the points raised by comments on this blog as well as in some of the more negative reviews.

My other reason  for starting this blog was to find some outlet for the wealth of material that I was not able to incorporate in the book.  Most of this material has remained untapped while I composed comments on current events or new findings, and I was idly wondering when I would get around to sifting through the 7 GB  or so that is gathering nanodust on my computer’s hard drive.  My Eureka! moment came when I realized that I had already devoted a considerable amount of my free time to writing the book during the better part of three years.  Perhaps I didn’t really want to return to the old material?  With the new preface, I can finally declare the book finished and move on to something else.

Will it be another book, maybe one that will win me the mythical seven figure advance?  Or will there be another blog, or the same one under another name?   That’s for the future to decide.  Meanwhile, this one will remain visible, but with no new entries.

My thanks to the regular readers and occasional visitors who helped keep the blog from slipping into solipsism.  And my special thanks to authors of comments who, by disagreeing, often sharply, with opinions expressed here, demonstrated that the meaning of mathematics is still a matter of controversy.


This was supposed to be the last entry, but I’m now thinking I should include part of the new preface material — or all of it, if PUP allows it.  Meanwhile, in order not to let anything go to waste, here is the post on which I was working when I realized that this blog had reached the end of its natural life…




I Cunfirenti

This was originally going to be an appendix to the playlist near the end of Chapter 8:  an exploration of the attitude to mathematics in the genre of organized crime ballads.  The deeper meaning of Rick Ross’s 2009 single Mafia Music was exposed even before it was released,  but I was unable to find an interpretation of the unexpected appearance of mathematics in the middle of this rap à clef:

I thought about my future and the loops I could pin.
Walked out on a gig and I turned to da streets,
Kept my name low key, I ain’t heard from in weeks.
I came up with a strategy to come up mathematically,
I did it for da city but now everybody mad at me.

Apart from Rick Ross, Gödel is the only person Google finds who can “come up mathematically.”  My guess is that Ross’s strategy (unlike Gödel’s) involves money.  But Ross is not really a gangster, and Mafia Music is not really a mafia song at all; in fact, by naming names the song breaks what I’m told is the most fundamental of all the rules of the Italian Malavita, namely the rule of omertà, the iron law of silence.

Now it struck me when I saw this that the mathematical profession has its own version of omertà, probably not very different from other forms of academic rules of silence, having to do with forms of behavior that straddle the line that divides the unpleasant from the unethical.  The behavior protected by mathematical omertà differs from other varieties in that it tends to inspire less literary commentary.  Instead it consists in scandalous rumors whispered in corridors when they are not being shouted across barroom tables, but that must under no circumstances be mentioned in public.  (There was a scurrilous exception in a well known literary magazine a few years ago, but I will not dignify it with a link.)

I am particularly sensitive to this rule just now, because in the past few weeks I was shocked to learn of abuse of power by several colleagues I would not have believed capable of such behavior (and by a few others I can easily believe capable of anything).  Whether being the repository of such confidences is one of the perks of my charisma, or whether it’s the abusers who feel newly entitled as a result of their own charisma, the mildest punishment I could expect if I chose to betray the dark secrets of the mathematical profession is not to be privy to such secrets in the future.  Breach of Mafia omertà is treated more harshly than that.  Many of the songs on the delightful album La Musica della Mafia are devoted to the many kinds of punishment the gangster ethic  —

Laws that don’t forgive those/Who break their silence

reserves for traitors — cunfirenti, in Calabrian dialect.  For example, the song entitled I cunfirenti promises that they will find “their final resting place in concrete walls” (‘Mpastati ccu cimentu e poi murati).

The album’s title is imprecise; it’s not a collection of songs of the Sicilian mafia but rather the ballads of their Calabrian declension, the ‘Ndrangheta, who deserve to be better known, and not only for their songs:

Its success at drug smuggling catapulted the ‘Ndrangheta past its more storied Sicilian rival, the Cosa Nostra, in both wealth and power. Italian authorities now consider the ‘Ndrangheta to be Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.

What I find most charming about this collection is the contrast between the lively rhythms of many of the songs and the uniformly grim, often bloody, content of the lyrics.  For example:

Malavita, malavita
Appartegnu all’Onorata
Puru si c’impizzu a vita
Eu nun fazzu na sgarrata

Which means

Malavita, malavita!
I am one of the honorable society.
And even if it costs me my life,
I will never surrender.

If you’re looking for mathematical content you have to skip to the last verse:

Ed eo chi tingu sangu ´nta li vini
Su prontu d’affruntari mille infami
A chista genti ci rispunnimu
Pidi sunu pronti centu lami

Which means

And I who have blood flowing through my veins
Am ready to face 1000 traitors
As they know all too well
That 100 sharpened knives are ready for them.

Is it common knowledge that anyone is fit to be US President?

mutualknowledge

A few weeks ago, Terry Tao used Donald Trump’s perceived lack of qualification for the presidency to illustrate the difference between mutual knowledge and common knowledge, in a blog post with the normative title It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America.  It’s common knowledge that Terry Tao, in addition to being one of the Mozarts of mathematics, is a very sensible person, and like every sensible person he is appalled by the prospect of Trump’s election as president.  As an attempt to account for this unwelcome prospect, Tao suggested that the correctness of Proposition 1 above is a matter of mutual knowledge  —

information that everyone (or almost everyone) knows

but not (or not yet) common knowledge

something that (almost) everyone knows that everyone else knows (and that everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows, and so forth).

It seems to me, though, that Tao’s formulation of the question — whether Trump is “fit for the presidency” or, in the words of Proposition 1, is “even remotely qualified” — is ambiguous.  The only axiomatic answer is the one provided by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which implies unequivocally that Trump, like me but (unfortunately) unlike Tao, is indeed “eligible to the office of President” — though I admit I haven’t seen his birth certificate — and eligible is here the only word that is unambiguous and legally binding.

Now I realize that, even if you are a mathematician and therefore legally or at least professionally bound to respect the axiomatic method, you will object (at least I hope you will) that Tao did not mean to suggest that Trump’s bare eligibility was in question, but rather that Trump did not meet the more stringent criteria of fitness or even remote qualification.  By analogy, no one would deny that  ø (the empty set) is eligible to be a set, according to the usual axioms of set theory, but rather that

  1. ø is hardly anyone’s favorite set;
  2. ø is in no sense a paradigmatic set; and
  3. ø is not the kind of set for which set theory was designed.

Thus, even if it were mutual or even common knowledge that Trump is, so to speak, the empty set of American politics, that would hardly count as a consensus on his fitness or even remote qualification.  I’m naturally sympathetic to this kind of argument, but Tao made it clear that only comments that

directly address the validity or epistemological status of Proposition 1

were eligible for consideration on his blog.  While I’m hardly a strict constructionist, I don’t see how to avoid interpreting the word epistemological in terms of the maximal epistemological framework I share with Tao, which in this case can only be Article II, Section 1 (together with the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms, but I doubt they are of much help here).

I was already leaning to a different explanation of the Trump phenomenon before fivethirtyeight.com offered this helpful but depressing roster of the worst (and best) presidents in the history of the United States, according to (unspecified) “scholars.”  Running down the list, one sees that, although Barack Obama is undoubtedly one of the most fit of all the presidents, intellectually as well as academically speaking, he only shows up near the middle of the ranking.  Presumably this is because he has been less effective as a politician than the presidents at the top of the list.  Judging by his words, I would like to say that Obama is one of the most morally fit of the presidents on the list; judging by his deeds, on the other hand — these, for example, or these — the record is much less appealing.  Jimmy Carter has proved to be both intellectually and morally admirable since leaving the presidency, but he made two of the biggest foreign policy blunders in recent history while in office (he ranks quite poorly on the list, probably for different reasons).

It is clearly mutual knowledge that the notion of fitness to lead a modern democracy, in particular fitness for the presidency of the USA ,correlates strongly with a shocking disdain for the notion that elections are designed to reflect the popular will.   My sense is that Trump’s supporters, and their counterparts across Europe, would like this to be common knowledge.  Fortunately, they are not the only ones.


This will be the next-to-last post for the summer; the next post will explain why it may be time to put this blog to rest permanently.

 

Am I a number theorist?

 

1985ean Parisko École Normale Superieureko matematikako zuzendari eta irakasle hautatu zuten. Urte berean, Londresko Errege Elkarteko kide izendatu zuten. Emmanuel Collegeko kide izateaz gainera, Cambridgeko Matematikako Sadleiriar katedra ere lortu zuen. 1991n Cambridgeko Matematika Huts eta Estatistika Matematikako saileko zuzendari izendatu zuten.

Wikipedia lists 395 number theorists, from Euclid and Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī to Jacob Tsimerman, but I am not on the list.  Actually, one should consider not one list but all the lists of number theorists, in languages from العربية to 中文, but I am not on any of the lists.

Some of the lists are easy to remember; for example, the Kazakhs only recognize Diophantus, Hadamard, Gauss, and Fibonacci (in alphabetical order:  Д, Ж, К, Ф); the Icelandic page only lists Dirichlet.  I wonder whether John Coates knows that he is the only number theorist not born in the 18th or 19th century, and only one of five number theorists of any time or place, to have a Wikipedia page in Basque, excerpted above; I will surely ask him the next time I see him.

I like to point out Wikipedia’s frequent errors, omissions, and oddities; it reinforces my possibly naive hope that there is a future for professional scholarship.  When I start writing anything I inevitably consult Wikipedia for source material, and I sometimes use “Wikipedia” as a stand-in for wired public opinion;  but I never quote it as a reliable reference, because too often it is not.  On this occasion I was looking for a list of number theorists — it should be easier to get that right than a list of autobiographies — because I had just come across an exchange on the n-Category Café in which Harvey Friedman took part, and in which Peano arithmetic was mentioned and I was wondering how many number theorists on the list would be able to recite the Peano postulates, and what that said about the state of our subject.  Surely Eratosthenes and John Coates’s four companions on the Basque page are exempt, but are contemporary number theorists really entitled to their places on the list?  To be continued…

 

Jazz

Alexander-Jazz-of copy

Nearly three months have passed since I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Stephon Alexander at Book Culture, near Columbia.  MWA had been out for over a year, but I had put off reporting on the (very moderately attended!) event until Alexander’s book was available.  Alexander is both an accomplished theoretical physicist (“specializing,” as the event blurb indicates, “in the interface between cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity”) and a respected jazz saxophonist.  “Respected” meaning:  when he walks into a downtown jazz club, the owner comes out to greet him.  

The Jazz of Physics is a fascinating read, as I’ll let you discover for yourselves.  Or perhaps you have already discovered the book; as of this writing , it is listed on amazon.com as #1 best-seller in quantum physics AND #2 best-seller in jazz, which must be a first.  Of course Alexander had to overcome the first obstacle that faces the author of any popular science book, namely:  when communicating ideas that only a few specialists really understand (and even then imperfectly and provisionally), how to draw the line between making them accessible and making them trivial?   Alexander uses jazz, and music more generally, as the basis for a series of increasingly complex and precise analogies with physics, especially his own work on the quantum mechanics of the early universe.  It works — readers and reviewers seem to be happy with the results — but I want to suggest that jazz is not merely used as a metaphor in this book.  If I understand the conclusion correctly, by the end Alexander is suggesting, plausibly, that the structure of the universe is itself improvisational, so that jazz turns out to be a surprisingly effective (even “unreasonably effective”) route to understanding cosmology.

I’ll leave the speculation at that.  When I was putting together material on the attitudes of musicians to mathematics, I did not search systematically but rather collected enough examples to establish what seemed to me general patterns, to wit:  classical musicians and rockers for the most part refused to acknowledge an affinity with mathematics, but African-American popular musicians — especially in rap and techno — seemed to hold mathematics in high regard.  (I met Alexander when I was putting this together and he gave me a few precious tips.)  I was frustrated to have found no meaningful material on the relations of jazz musicians to mathematics, but not frustrated enough to explore the question in a scholarly manner.

Alexander’s book doesn’t settle the question, but he does establish that some of the biggest names in jazz were seriously interested in physics.  He mentions Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef:

About a decade ago, I sat alone in a dim café on the main drag of Amherst, Massachusetts, preparing for a physics faculty job presentation when an urge hit me. I found a pay phone with a local phone book and mustered up the courage to call Yusef Lateef, a legendary jazz musician, who had recently retired from the music department of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I had something I had to tell him.…

“Hello?” a male voice finally answered.
“Hi, is Professor Lateef available?” I asked.
“Professor Lateef is not here,” said the voice, flatly.
“Could I leave him a message about the diagram that John Coltrane gave him as a birthday gift in ’67? I think I figured out what it means.”

There was a long pause. “Professor Lateef is here.”

The diagram is pictured in the Introduction to The Jazz of Physics, with the helpful caption “any other reproduction is prohibited.”  So you will have to read the book if you want to see what Alexander and Lateef had to say to each other.

Four scientific societies react to the resignation of French experts

I am told that the previous post on the resignation of the ANR evaluation committee for mathematics and computer science was widely shared on Facebook, notably by researchers in the social sciences.  Today the Société Mathématique de France published a joint statement signed by the presidents of four professional organizations, as well as the text of a motion in support of the resignation, voted by the SMF at their national meeting last week.

The joint statement is reproduced below (in French).

Déclaration des sociétés savantes françaises de mathématiques et d’informatique

Société Française de Statistique (SFdS),

Société de Mathématiques Appliquées et Industrielles (SMAI),

Société Mathématique de France (SMF),

Société Informatique de France (SIF).

Mise  en  garde  sur  l’inadéquation  du  modèle  de  sélection  de  l’ANR  pour  les mathématiques et l’informatique.

Les sociétés savantes de mathématiques, statistique et informatique (SFdS, SMAI, SMF, SIF) alertent  les  pouvoirs  publics,  l’Agence  Nationale de  la  Recherche  (ANR)  et  la  communauté scientifique  sur  la  démobilisation  massive  des  mathématiciens  et  informaticiens  constaté  ces dernières années dans les appels à projets de l’ANR.

Cette démobilisation  apparaît comme une conséquence  du choix de l’ANR de ne pas tenir  compte  des  spécificités  disciplinaires  et  de  ne  pas  impulser  une  dynamique  qui soit réellement au service du développement de la science et de l’innovation en France.

Les  mathématiques,  les  statistiques  et  l’informatique  sont  fortement  moteurs  et  vont l’être  de  plus  en  plus  de  façon  directe,  transversale  et  interdisciplinaire  dans  tous  les changements  en  cours  concernant  le  développement  technologique,  les  enjeux  du numérique  et  la  capacité  d’innovation  en  France  et  à  l’international.  Pourtant,  le conseil  de  prospective  de  l’ANR  n’intègre  aucun  mathématicien  ni  informaticien  en son sein.

Le  Comité  d’Evaluation  Scientifique  de  l’ANR  en  mathématiques  et  informatique (CES 40) a  constaté  une  forte  baisse  du  nombre  de  projets  soumis  en  2016, conséquence immédiate d’une perte de la motivation des  collègues face au très faible  taux  d’acceptation  des  années  précédentes.  Il  souligne    également  la difficulté  de  mobiliser  les  collègues  pour  expertiser  des  projets  trop  souvent rejetés.

Or le nombre de projets soutenus est calculé par l’ANR proportionnellement au nombre de projets soumis. Cette année, nos deux disciplines auront donc encore moins  de  projets  acceptés,  amorçant  un cercle  vicieux  qui  met  en  danger  la vitalité de nos communautés.

En outre, les modalités d’élaboration du taux d’acceptation de l’ANR ne sont pas discutées  de  façon  ouverte  ni  diffusées  à  la  communauté  scientifique  (toutes disciplines  confondues).  Ce  taux est  déterminé  par  l’ANR,  de  façon  opaque  et  sans   aucune   concertation   avec   les   comités   après   leur   travail   d’évaluation scientifique. Il est fixé pour chaque défi, sans aucune considération disciplinaire qui permettrait  de  dégager  une  vision  pour  le  développement  de  la  science  et leur impact économique et sociétal. Les comités doivent aujourd’hui travailler en «aveugle», sans aucune information sur la politique de répartition des moyens, et sans prise en compte des critères scientifiques pour le classement final.

Les quatre sociétés savantes signataires  demandent donc que les comités scientifiques soient pleinement associés aux modalités d’élaboration des taux d’acceptation, qu’une enveloppe budgétaire soit décidée en amont du travail des comités et que le conseil de prospective de l’ANR soit plus représentatif pour les mathématiques et l’informatique. Porteuses  des  attentes  de  leur  communauté,  elles  souhaitent  rencontrer  le  ministère dans les plus brefs délais.

GÉRARD    BIAU,    Président    de    la    SFdS,

FATIHA    ALABAU,    Présidente    de    la    SMAI,

MARC    PEIGNE,    Président    de    la    SMF,

JEAN-­MARC    PETIT,    Président    de    la    SIF.

Not about Fibonacci

quadrivium - 1

Arithmetic, geometry, and music in Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit (1301-1310), Duomo di Pisa

Pisa is the international symbol of improbable constructions and therefore a fitting location for this week’s workshop.  Pisa is also a fitting location for meditating on the eternal and impossible question:  do we engage in mathematics because we find it beautiful, or do we find mathematics beautiful because of our programming?  Are Pisa’s medieval arcades beautiful because we are used to them or do we admire Pisa for the beauty of its medieval architecture?

In addition to the Roman sarcophagi that littered Pisa’s underworld and were recycled in medieval times to house the remains of political and military citizens “di primario spicco,” Pisa’s Camposanto contains the gigantic (5.6 x 15 m) 14th century fresco Il trionfo della morte which might have served as a reminder of the urgency of completing the program of this week’s workshop, but which is undergoing restoration and is therefore not visible to the public.  It seems to me the workshop provides a striking illustration of the complex interplay between freedom and inevitability in the design of a mathematical theory, in this case the mod p Langlands program, whose ultimate goals are being defined, democratically as far as I can tell, through workshops and conferences like this one.

Pisa’s medieval walls are also decorated with a variety of political statements.  Someone found it worth his or her while to design a stencil to celebrate an American mathematical personality:

Kaczynsky - 1

Seen on a wall in central Pisa. The caption reads “strike where it hurts the most.”