From a comment by Tamas Gabal:
“This division into 'pure' and 'applied' mathematics is real, as it is understood and awkwardly enforced by the math departments in the US. How is algebraic geometry not 'applied' when so much of its development is motivated by theoretical physics?”
Of course, the division into the pure and applied mathematics is real. They are two rather different types of human activity in every respect (including the role of the “problems”). Contrary to what you think, it is hardly reflected in the structure of US universities. Both pure and applied mathematics belong to the same department (with few exceptions). This allows the university administrators to freely convert positions in the pure mathematics into positions in applied mathematics. They never do the opposite conversion.
Algebraic geometry is not applied. You will be not able to fool by such statement any dean or provost. I am surprised that it is, apparently, not obvious anymore. Here are some reasons.
1. First of all, the part of theoretical physics in which algebraic geometry is relevant is itself as pure as pure mathematics. It deals mostly with theories which cannot be tested experimentally: the required conditions existed only in the first 3 second after the Big Bang and, probably, only much earlier. The motivation for these theories is more or less purely esthetical, like in pure mathematics. Clearly, these theories are of no use in the real life.
2. Being motivated by outside questions does not turn any branch of mathematics into an applied branch. Almost all branches of mathematics started from some questions outside of it. To qualify as applied, a theory should be really applied to some outside problems. By the way, this is the main problem with what administrators call “applied mathematics”. While all “applied mathematicians” refer to applications as a motivation of their work, their results are nearly always useless. Moreover, usually they are predictably useless. In contrast, pure mathematicians cannot justify their research by applications, but their results eventually turn out to be very useful.
3. Algebraic geometry was developed as a part of pure mathematics with no outside motivation. What happens when it interacts with theoretical physics? The standard pattern over the last 30-40 years is the following. Physicists use they standard mode of reasoning to state, usually not precisely, some mathematical conjectures. The main tool of physicists not available to mathematicians is the Feynman integral. Then mathematicians prove these conjectures using already available tools from pure mathematics, and they do this surprisingly fast. Sometimes a proof is obtained before the conjecture is published. About 25 years ago I.M. Singer (of the Atiyah-Singer theorem fame) wrote an outline of what, he hoped, will result from the interaction of mathematics with the theoretical physics in the near future. In one phrase, one may say that he hoped for infinitely-dimensional geometry as nice and efficient as the finitely-dimensional geometry is. This would be a sort of replacement for the Feynman integral. Well, his hopes did not materialize. The conjectures suggested by physicists are still being proved by finitely-dimensional means; physics did not suggested any way even to make precise what kind of such infinitely-dimensional geometry is desired, and there is no interesting or useful genuinely infinitely-dimensional geometry. By “genuinely” I mean “not being essentially/morally equivalent to a unified sequence of finitely dimensional theories or theorems”.
To sum up, nothing dramatic resulted from the interaction of algebraic geometry and theoretical physics. I don not mean that nothing good resulted. In mathematics this interaction resulted in some quite interesting theorems and theories. It did not change the landscape completely, as Grothendieck’s ideas did, but it made it richer. As of physics, the question is still open. More and more people are taking the position that these untestable theories are completely irrelevant to the real world (and hence are not physics at all). There are no applications, and hence the whole activity cannot be considered as an applied one.
Next post: The role of the problems.