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.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Who writes about big questions?

Previous post: Slavic soul? The interest in big questions about mathematics.

Reply to a comment to the pervious post.

Well, your question makes it very tempting to write a long essay about the current state of mathematics. But this is not really needed.

I mentioned the most famous people; I hope that all names are immediately recognizable. Our contemporaries cannot be so famous just because they are our contemporaries. Let me try, but first I would like to say a few words about Thurston.

Yes, his essay is not quite about this topic. But there are hints, and his reply at Mathoverflow, which is reproduced in this blog is worth of 100s pages of other writers. A. Weil did not write a book on philosophy of mathematics, he just mentioned such issues here and there, and we know a lot about his views from his Bourbaki collaborators. The article I quoted in my first posts was published in French in an obscure (at least for non-French mathematicians) place. The “Monthly” translation expanded the audience, but the translation appears to be a not very good one. My point is that he wasn’t concerned much about dissemination these ideas. It looks like Thurston was more concerned about his ideas.

The most obvious example is, of course, T. Gowers. He wrote two essays, the one about “two cultures”, the other about replacing mathematicians by computers (this is, in fact, a section in his GAFA Visions paper), and he writes about such things in his blog. I don’t like his ideas, but if somebody outlines a project of replacing mathematicians by computers and offers a justification for such a project, he is definitely writing about the larger place of mathematics in the world in the most dramatic way: do we need mathematics or not? His answer is “no, we don’t”. His writings are definitely related to his own work: all examples are taken from his corner of mathematics.

Even the n-Category CafĂ© itself is an example, and one of the persons running it, David Corfield, wrote a book about philosophy of mathematics (I only browsed through it but plan to read it; it seems to be quite interesting). There is Colin McLarty, who writes about the implications of Grothendieck’s way of thinking. Of course, there is an autobiographical text (or, rather, several texts) of Grothendieck himself, which nobody dares to publish for 30 years already. On a much less abstract level, there is Neal Koblitz, who wrote about the role of mathematics in the society and criticized (largely from a political perspective) the way the “help” is given to the developing countries (and wrote an autobiographical book).

On the other hand, one can easily speak about mathematicians with Soviet-Russian upbringing, but how many texts written by them and worth reading can you suggest? Manin is excluded. Borovik’s book did not impress me enough to read it. Is my impression wrong? Honestly, I don’t know, but it is the business of the author to attract readers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, nowadays mathematics has a quite respectable place in the society. This allows us to earn a living by doing mostly the things we like to do no matter what. It would be too dangerous to try to insert a controversy about the larger role of mathematics in the society. Almost nobody dares to say anything nontrivial about this. Paul Halmos once said that NSF grants or any other government financing is not needed, because it does not matter when a theorem is proved, tomorrow or in 300 years. I don’t know any other comparable statement.

Personally, I believe that the government financing had already damaged mathematics too much and should be eliminated or, at least, radically reformed. Looking at the whole society, I believe that the teaching of mathematics in high schools and to almost all college students (in the US) is a serious damage to the society. But, this gives us our jobs! And these are just the most obvious issues.

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