Tamas Gabal asked the following question.
I heard a criticism of Lurie's work, that it does not contain startling new ideas, complete solutions of important problems, even new conjectures. That he is simply rewriting old ideas in a new language. I am very far from this area, and I find it a little disturbing that only the ultimate experts speak highly of his work. Even people in related areas can not usually give specific examples of his greatness. I understand that his objectives may be much more long-term, but I would still like to hear some response to these criticisms.
Short answer: I don't care. Here is a long answer.
Well, this is the reason why my opinion about Lurie is somewhat conditional. As I already said, if an impartial committee confirms the significance of Lurie’s work, it will remove my doubts and, very likely, will stimulate me to study his work in depth. It is much harder to predict what will be the influence of the actual committee. Perhaps, I will try to learn his work in any case. If he will not get the medal, then in the hope to make sure that the committee is wrong.
I planned to discuss many peculiarities of mathematical prizes in another post, but one of these peculiarities ought to be mentioned now. Most of mathematical prizes go to people who solved some “important problems”. In fact, most of them go to people who made the last step in solving a problem. There is recent and famous example at hand: the Clay $1,000,000.00 prize was awarded to Perelman alone. But the method was designed by R. Hamilton, who did a huge amount of work, but wasn’t able to made “the last step”. Perhaps, just because of age. As Perelman said to a Russian news agency, he declined the prize because in his opinion Hamilton’s work is no less important than his own, and Hamilton deserves the prize no less than him. It seems that this reason still not known widely enough. To the best of my knowledge, it was not included in any press-release of the Clay Institute. The Clay Institute scheduled the award ceremony like they knew nothing, and then held the ceremony as planned. Except Grisha Perelman wasn’t present, and he did not accept the prize in any sense.
So, the prizes go to mathematicians who did the last step in the solution of a recognized problem. The mathematicians building the theories on which these solutions are based almost never get Fields medals. Their chances are more significant when prize is a prize for the life-time contribution (as is the case with the Abel prize). There are few exceptions.
First of all, A. Grothendieck is an exception. He proved part of the Weil conjectures, but not the most important one (later proved by P. Deligne). One of the Weil conjectures (the basic one) was independently proved by B. Dwork, by a completely different and independent method, and published earlier (by the way, this is fairly accessible and extremely beautiful piece of work). The report of J. Dieudonne at the 1966 Congress outlines a huge theory, to a big extent still not written down then. It includes some theorems, like the Grothendieck-Riemann-Roch theorem, but: (i) GRR theorem does not solve any established problem, it is a radically new type of a statement; (ii) Grothendieck did not published his proof, being of the opinion that the proof is not good enough (an exposition was published by Borel and Serre); (iii) it is just a byproduct of his new way of thinking.
D. Quillen (Fields medal 1978) did solve some problems, but his main achievement is a solution of a very unusual problem: to give a good definition of so-called higher algebraic K-functors. It is a theory. Moreover, there are other solutions. Eventually, it turns out that they all provide equivalent definitions. But Quillen’s definitions (actually, he suggested two) are much better than others.
So, I do not care much if Lurie solved some “important problems” or not. Moreover, in the current situation I rather prefer that he did not solved any well-known problems, if he will get a Fields medal. The contrast with the Hungarian combinatorics, which is concentrated on statements and problems, will make the mathematics healthier.
Problems are very misleading. Often they achieve their status not because they are really important, but because a prize was associated with them (Fermat Last Theorem), or they were posed by a famous mathematicians. An example of the last situation is nothing else but the Poincaré Conjecture – in fact, Poincaré did not stated it as a conjecture, he just mentioned that “it would be interesting to know the answer to the following question”. It is not particularly important by itself. It claims that one difficult to verify property (being homeomorphic to a 3-sphere) is equivalent to another difficult to verify property (having trivial fundamental group). In practice, if you know that the fundamental group is trivial, you know also that your manifold is a 3-sphere.
Next post: New ideas.