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.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Combinatorics is not a new way of looking at mathematics
This is a partial reply to a comment by vznvzn in Gowers's blog.
Combinatorics is most resolutely not "a new way of looking at mathematics". It is very old, definitely known for hundreds years. Perhaps, it was known in the ancient Babylon already.
And Erdős is not a "contrarian". His work belongs to the most widely practiced tradition in analysis. As a crude approximation, one can say that this tradition originates in the calculus of Leibniz, which is quite different from the calculus of Newton. Even most of mathematicians are not aware of the difference between the Leibniz calculus and the Newton calculus. This is not surprising at all, since only the Leibniz calculus is taught nowadays.
It is the Grothendieck's way of looking at mathematics, the one which I advocate, which is new. This new, conceptual, way of doing mathematics immediately met strong resistance.
And in some cases its opponents won. For example, the early work of Grothedieck in functional analysis had no influence till analysts managed to translate part of his ideas into their standard language. It seems that only quite recently some of analysts realized that a lot was lost in this translation, and done a better translation, closer to the spirit of the original work of Grothendieck.
Another example is provided by the invasion of this new style and even some technical concepts developed in this style into the analysis of several complex variables. This was intolerable for the classical complex analysts, and they started to stress problems about which it was more or less clear that they can be approached by familiar methods. They succeeded, and already in the 1970ies a prominent representative of the classical school, W. Rudin, was able proudly say that Grothendieck's methods (he was more specific) disappeared into background. He did not publish his opinion at the time, but attempted to insult a prominent representative of the new style, A. Borel by such statements. A quarter of century (or more) later he told this story in an autobiographical book. (W. Rudin is a good mathematician and the author of several exceptionally good books, but A. Borel was a brilliant mathematician.)
Now we are observing a much broader attempt, apparently led by T. Gowers, to eliminate the conceptual way of doing mathematics completely. At the very least T. Gowers is the face of this movement for the mathematical public. After this T. Gowers envisions an elimination of the mathematics itself by relegating it to computers. It looks like the second step is the one most dear to his heart (see the discussion in his blog about a year ago). It seems that combinatorics is much more amenable to the computerization (although I don't believe that even this is possible) than the conceptual mathematics.
Actually, it is not hard to believe that computers can efficiently produce proofs of a wide class of theorem (the proofs will be unreadable to humans, but still some will consider them as proofs). But for the conceptual mathematics it is the definition, and not the proofs, which is important. The conceptual mathematics is looking for new definitions interesting to humans. The proof and theorems serve as a stimulus for work and as a necessary testing ground for new definitions. If a new definition does not help to prove new theorems or to simplify the proofs of old ones, it is not interesting for humans.
There is only one way to get rid of the conceptual mathematics, namely, the Wigner shift of the second kind. The new generation should be told that combinatorics is new, that it is the field to work in, and very soon we will see the young people only the ones doing combinatorics. Since mathematics is to a huge extent "a young people’s game", such a shift can be accomplished very quickly.
P.S. It is worth to note that there are two branches of combinatorics, and one of them is already belongs to the conceptual mathematics. Some people (like D. Zeilberger) are intentionally ignoring this to promote the non-conceptual kind.
Next post: D. Zeilberger's Opinions 1 and 62.