Category Archives: In the media

CORRUPT DATA: Conference at Columbia April 13-14, 2017

The Center for Contemporary Critical Thought’s Digital Initiative presents a two-part conference series

Cambridge Analytica: Tracing Personal Data (from ethical lapses to its use in electoral campaigns)

Thursday, April 13, 2017 | 11:00am | East Gallery, Maison Francais

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye with Tamsin Shaw | Cathy O’Neil as respondant | moderated by Professor Michael Harris

&

Civil Society and Personal Data Use: necessary and salutary responses

Friday, April 14, 2017 | 12:00pm | Jerome Greene Hall 103

by Paul-Olivier Dehaye and Jerome Groetenbriel | moderated by Profesor Michael Harris | introduced by Professor Bernard E. Harcourt

 

 

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…

 

They’re here!

Grothendieck on Amazon

One published in 2015, two new ones this year.  Plus last month’s addition to the list:

 

Rouzel

Douroux is a journalist at Libération, who, according to the jacket, “spent four years tracking down the brilliant hermit.  He has scoured [épluché] the archives and flushed out its last secrets.”  Fat chance!  Still, his book is at 5851 on amazon.fr’s best seller list, the others somewhat lower.

None of these books has been translated into any language other than French, as far as I can tell, and the definitive biography — the one on which the definitive movie will be based — has yet to be written.

French research budgets cut 134,000,000 €, reaction in Le Monde

From today’s Le Monde.   Cédric Villani’s signature at the bottom.

Un projet de décret a été présenté commission des finances de l’Assemblée nationale, mercredi 18 mai, annulant 256 millions d’euros de crédits sur la mission « recherche et enseignement supérieur ». La commission doit se prononcer sur ce texte mardi. Dans une tribune, publiée par « Le Monde », sept Prix Nobel et une médaille Fields (une récompense équivalente pour les mathématiques), dénoncent « un coup de massue » et décrivent des mesures qui « s’apparentent à un suicide scientifique et industriel ».

 

Hasards de l’actualité : nous avons appris le même jour que les dépenses de recherche et développement (R&D) de l’Etat fédéral allemand ont augmenté de 75 % en dix ans, et que le gouvernement français annulait 256 millions d’euros des crédits 2016 de la Mission recherche enseignement supérieur (Mires), représentant un quart des économies nécessaires pour financer les dépenses nouvelles annoncées depuis janvier.

Au sein de ces mesures, on note que les principaux organismes de recherche sont particulièrement touchés, le CEA, le CNRS, l’INRA et Inria, pour une annulation globale de 134 millions d’euros.

Nous savons combien les budgets de ces organismes sont tendus depuis de longues années. Ce coup de massue vient confirmer les craintes régulièrement exprimées : la recherche scientifique française, dont le gouvernement ne cesse par ailleurs de louer la grande qualité et son apport à la R&D, est menacée de décrochage vis-à-vis de ses principaux concurrents dans l’espace mondialisé et hautement compétitif de la recherche scientifique. Exemple parmi d’autres, le gouvernement américain vient de décider de doubler son effort dans le domaine des recherches sur l’énergie.

Ce coup d’arrêt laissera des traces, et pour de longues années

Ce que l’on détruit brutalement, d’un simple trait de plume budgétaire, ne se reconstruit pas en un jour. Les organismes nationaux de recherche vont devoirarrêter des opérations en cours et notamment limiter les embauches de chercheurs et de personnels techniques. Ce coup d’arrêt laissera des traces, et pour de longues années.

Le message envoyé par le gouvernement n’incitera pas non plus la jeunesse à se tourner vers les métiers de la recherche scientifique et de la R&D en général.

Une analyse récente de la société Thomson Reuters plaçait trois organismes français, le CEA, le CNRS et l’Inserm, parmi les dix organismes publics les plus innovants au monde, illustrant ainsi le fait que notre pays dispose bien de la recherche de base et d’une R&D de qualité, conditions nécessaires pour mener à bien le redressement économique du pays.

Nous sommes encore loin des 3 % du PIB fixés comme objectif pour les dépenses de R&D par la stratégie Europe 2020, et nous n’y parviendrons pas en fragilisant à ce point les principaux organismes de recherche. Les mesures qui viennent d’être prises s’apparentent à un suicide scientifique et industriel.

Dans ce monde incertain, la qualité de notre recherche est un atout considérable. La recherche française est un des pôles reconnus de la science mondiale multipolaire et nous devons maintenir et consolider cette position enviable. Car il n’y a pas de nation prospère sans une recherche scientifique de qualité. Puisse le gouvernement français entendre cet appel.

Google’s translation is comprehensible.  Signed by

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Prix Nobel de physiologie ou médecine)
Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (Prix Nobel de physique)
Albert Fert (Prix Nobel de physique)
Serge Haroche (Prix Nobel de physique)
Jules Hoffmann (Prix Nobel de physiologie ou médecine)
Jean Jouzel (vice-président du groupe scientifique du GIEC, au moment où celui-ci reçoit le prix Nobel de la paix)
Jean-Marie Lehn (Prix Nobel de chimie)
Cédric Villani (médaille Fields)

Department of Euro-American mathematics?

al-Khwarizmi

Soviet 4 kopeck stamp in honor of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden have just published an opinion piece in the New York Times decrying the “systematic neglect” of non-European traditions in philosophy departments in the US and Canada.

…of the 118 doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent have a specialist in Chinese philosophy as part of their regular faculty. Most philosophy departments also offer no courses on Africana, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American, Native American or other non-European traditions. Indeed, of the top 50 philosophy doctoral programs in the English-speaking world, only 15 percent have any regular faculty members who teach any non-Western philosophy.

Since they find it unlikely that the situation will change any time soon, they propose that most philosophy departments rename themselves Department of European and American Philosophy to reflect their “true intellectual commitments.”  I have a lot of sympathy with their position.  MWA quotes Garfield extensively as an authority on ancient Indian philosophy, specifically in regard to philosophy of mathematics.  I would only add Russian philosophy to the traditions that are generally absent from departments in North America; and I worry that the lack of diversity in philosophy departments appears to be much more severe than Garfield and Van Norden suggest.  For example, a colleague has told me that you can’t get a job in a Scandinavian philosophy department if you are a specialist on Kant, never mind Hegel or Derrida.  Whether or not this is an exaggeration, Department of European and American Philosophical Logic would be an accurate title for a great many departments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Garfield and Van Norden are not quite right, though, when they attempt to refute what they claim is a typical retort to their complaints about eurocentricity:

Others might argue against renaming on the grounds that it is unfair to single out philosophy: We do not have departments of Euro-American Mathematics or Physics. This is nothing but shabby sophistry. Non-European philosophical traditions offer distinctive solutions to problems discussed within European and American philosophy, raise or frame problems not addressed in the American and European tradition, or emphasize and discuss more deeply philosophical problems that are marginalized in Anglo-European philosophy. There are no comparable differences in how mathematics or physics are practiced in other contemporary cultures.

What is or is not “comparable” is in the eyes of the comparer, of course, and it’s no doubt true that cultural differences are no barrier to communication between contemporary mathematical practitioners in Asia and the rest of the world.  Historically, however, mathematics developed around the world in conjunction with a variety of metaphysical traditions, and this has inevitably affected the approaches to foundational matters.  I continue to believe what I have already written on this blog, namely that

I’m convinced that the most interesting problem currently facing philosophy of mathematics is to clarify how or whether Chinese and European mathematics differ and how or whether these differences reflect differences in the respective metaphysical traditions.

See also this earlier post for a discussion of how an abstract universalism tends to mask the persistence of privilege that very strongly aligns with the eurocentrism that Garfield and Van Norden rightly find objectionable.

Remembering Boris Weisfeiler

aviso copia

The New York Times reports that Chilean judge Jorge Zepeda “has put an end to the 16-year investigation” into the disappearance and death of the Russian-American mathematician Boris Weisfeiler, pictured above, while hiking in Chile in 1985, at the time of the Pinochet dictatorship.  For those unfamiliar with the case, here is what Allyn Jackson wrote in January 2004 in the Notices of the AMS:

In 1985 the mathematician Boris Weisfeiler disappeared while hiking alone in a remote area of Chile. At the time, he was a professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania State University and was widely recognized for his work in algebraic groups. What happened to him remains a mystery, and to this day it is not known whether he is still alive.  Born in the Soviet Union, Weisfeiler received his Ph.D. in 1970 from the Leningrad branch of the Steklov Institute, where his adviser was E. B. Vinberg. Weisfeiler emigrated to the United States in 1975 and worked with Armand Borel at the Institute for Advanced Study. The next year he joined the faculty at Pennsylvania State University. In 1981 he became an American citizen.  Weisfeiler’s disappearance has been the subject of several newspaper articles (see, for example, “Chilean Mystery: Clues to Vanished American”, by Larry Rohter, New York Times, May 19, 2002; and “Tracing a Mystery of the Missing in Chile”, by Pascale Bonnefoy, Washington Post, January 18, 2003). Further information about media coverage, as well as the present status of the investigation into his disappearance, may be found at http://weisfeiler. com/boris
.
On the occasion of the publication in Chile of a book about Weisfeiler’s disappearance, the Notices decided to present a brief tribute to his life and work. What follows is a short summary of his mathematical work and a review of the book. This is not an obituary, as hope remains that Weisfeiler is still alive. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to commemorate this lost member of the mathematical community, whose absence is keenly felt.
—Allyn Jackson
The Notices tribute consisted in two articles by Alexander Lubotzky (on Weisfeiler’s work) and a review by Neal Koblitz of the book pictured below,
el_ultimo_secreto_de_Dignidad
published in Chile in 2002.  The book’s thesis, which Koblitz found convincing, is that Weisfeiler was arrested by a military patrol — eight of whose members were put on trial in 2012 but released by judge Zepeda’s ruling — and handed over
to nearby Colonia Dignidad, an enclave of ultrarightist German immigrants founded and at the time still led by ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer. Thinking that Weisfeiler was a “Jewish spy” working for Nazi-hunters, they imprisoned and eventually killed him.
 The website mentioned in Jackson’s introduction is still active and has a reaction to the judge’s ruling, under the title “A Travesty of Justice.”
Judge Zepeda’s ruling in this case is a direct aide-mémoire of the judicial rulings during Gen Pinochet’s dictatorship. Regrettably, today’s Chilean Justice is strongly influenced by the government as well: the Chilean political establishment continues to see the Armed Forces as a threat to political stability and prefer not to interfere in their affairs.
The website has a long list of articles about the case, mostly in Spanish.  Those who understand Spanish can read an interview with Weisfeiler’s sister Olga, dated March 16, 2016, in the Chilean website 24horas.cl.
La noticia sobre el fallo que absolvió a los culpables de este crimen fue un golpe duro para ella…. No tanto por la decisión del juez Jorge Zepeda, que descartó que fuera un crimen de lesa humanidad, sino porque, según comenta, el magistrado la engañó a ella, su familia y al gobierno de los Estados Unidos acerca de cómo finalizaría esta historia.

Tim Gowers as public intellectual

So this is how a mathematician can be a public intellectual:  Tim Gowers employed his characteristically lucid prose in the service of clarity in his cogent response in the Guardian to the Simon Jenkins column mentioned in my previous post.  I agree with everything in Gowers’s answer to Jenkins, though his examples that show how mathematics can “be a tool for increasing one’s thinking power” are drawn from statistical reasoning; making the case for the value of learning the area of a circle or the quadratic formula is more challenging, and I don’t know that anyone has found the right way to counter the complaints of those who share the Jenkins worldview.  (I suspect the solution must include the word “culture” but I’m not sure what other words need to be involved.)

A position on questions of education in mathematics or anything else rests implicitly on a theory of the good society.  Jenkins must have such a theory but I couldn’t figure out what it is.  Gowers makes his very clear:

…once you [understand some principles of statistics], you become better at making decisions. This is important for individuals – whether we like it or not, we all have to take major decisions based on statistical evidence – and it is even more important for people in positions of authority, whose decisions affect other people.