About the title

About the title

I changed the title of the blog on March 20, 2013 (it used to have the title “Notes of an owl”). This was my immediate reaction to the news the T. Gowers was presenting to the public the works of P. Deligne on the occasion of the award of the Abel prize to Deligne in 2013 (by his own admission, T. Gowers is not qualified to do this).

The issue at hand is not just the lack of qualification; the real issue is that the award to P. Deligne is, unfortunately, the best compensation to the mathematical community for the 2012 award of Abel prize to Szemerédi. I predicted Deligne before the announcement on these grounds alone. I would prefer if the prize to P. Deligne would be awarded out of pure appreciation of his work.

I believe that mathematicians urgently need to stop the growth of Gowers's influence, and, first of all, his initiatives in mathematical publishing. I wrote extensively about the first one; now there is another: to take over the arXiv overlay electronic journals. The same arguments apply.

Now it looks like this title is very good, contrary to my initial opinion. And there is no way back.

Monday, June 4, 2012

T. Gowers about replacing mathematicians by computers. 2

Previous post: T. Gowers about replacing mathematicians by computers. 1.

As we do know too well by now, not all scientific or technological progress is unqualifiedly beneficial for the humanity. As one of the results of scientific research the humanity now has the ability to exterminate not only all humans, but also all the life on Earth. Dealing with this problem determined to a big extent the direction of development of western countries since shortly after WWII. There are not so dramatic examples also; a scientific research about humans may damage only minor part of the population, or even just the subjects of this research (during the last decades, such a research is carefully monitored in order to avoid any harm to the subjects).

Gowers’s project is an experiment on humans. I believe that replacing mathematicians by computers will do a lot of harm at least to the people who could find their joy and the meaning of life in doing mathematics. But the results, if the project succeeds, are not predictable. If we agree, together with André Weil, that mathematics is an indispensable part of our culture, then it hardly possible to predict what will happen without it.

There is also question if Gowers’s goal is achievable at all. He limited it in at least two significant respects. First, he would be satisfied even if computer will not surpass humans (as opposed to the designers of “Deep Blue”, who wanted and managed to surpass the best chess players). Second, he always speaks about proving theorems, and never about discovering analogies, introducing new definitions, etc. These aspects are the most important part of mathematics, not the theorems (compare the already quoted maxim by Manin). But only theorems matter in the Hungarian-style mathematics. Perhaps, this is the reason why Gowers never mentions these aspects of mathematics. It is hard to tell if this limited goal can be achieved. Given a statement, a computer definitely able sometimes to find a proof of it (or disprove it) by a sufficiently exhaustive search. If it is not able to give an answer, the problem remains open, exactly as in human mathematics. What kind of statements a computer will be able to deal with, is another question.

Some of the best problems are not a true-false type of questions. For example, the problem of defining a “good” cohomology theory for algebraic varieties over finite fields (to a big extent solved by Grothendieck), or the problem of defining higher algebraic K-functors (solved by Quillen). It is impossible for me to imagine a computer capable to invent new definitions or suggest problems based on vague analogies like these two problems, responsible for perhaps a half of really good mathematics after 1950.

It seems that I could feel safe: even in the gloomy Gowers’s future, there will be place for human mathematicians. In fact, the future theorems, stated as conjectures, always served as one of the main, or simply the main stimulus to invention of new definitions. In addition, the success of Gowers’s project will mean the end of mathematics as a profession. There will be no new mathematicians, of Serre’s level, or any other, simply because there will be no way to earn a living by doing human mathematics.

Next post: The twist ending. 1

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