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, July 29, 2013

Guessing who will get Fields medals - Some history and 2014

Previous post: 2014 Fields medalists?

This was a relatively easy task during about three decades. But it is nearly impossible now, at least if you do not belong to the “inner circle” of the current President of the International Mathematical Union. But they change at each Congress, and one can hardly hope to belong to the inner circle of all of them.

I would like to try to explain my approach to judging a particular selection of Fields medalists and to fairly efficiently guessing the winners in the past. This cannot be done without going a little bit into the history of Fields medals as it appears to a mathematician and not to a historian working with archives. I have no idea how to get to the relevant archives and even if they exist. I suspect that there is no written record of the deliberations of any Fields medal committee.

The first two Fields medals were awarded in 1936 to Lars Ahlfors and Jesse Douglas. It was the first award, and it wasn’t a big deal. It looks like that the man behind this choice was Constantin Carathéodory. I think that this was a very good choice. In my personal opinion, Lars Ahlfors is the best analyst of the previous century, and he did his most important work after the award, which is important in view of the terms of the Fields’ will. Actually, his best work was done after WWII. If not the war, it would be done earlier, but still after the award. J. Douglas solved the main problem about minimal surfaces (in the usual 3-dimensional space) at the time. He did with the bare hands things that we do now using powerful frameworks developed later. I believe that he became seriously ill soon afterward, but today I failed to find online any confirmation of this. Now I remember that I was just told about his illness. Apparently, he did not produce any significant results later. Would he continue to work on minimal surfaces, he could be forced to develop at least some of later tools.

The next two Fields medals were awarded in 1950 and since 1950 from 2 to 4 medals were awarded every 4 years. Initially the International Mathematical Union (abbreviated as IMU) was able to fund only 2 medals (despite the fact that the monetary part is negligible), but already for several decades it has enough funds for 4 medals (the direct monetary value remains to be negligible). I was told that awarding only 2 medals in 2002 turned out to be possible only after a long battle between the Committee (or rather its Chair, S.P. Novikov) and the officials of the IMU. So, I am not alone in thinking that sometimes there are no good enough candidates for 4 medals.

I apply to the current candidates the standard of golden years of both mathematics and the Fields medals. For mathematics, they are approximately 1940-1980, with some predecessors earlier and some spill-overs later. For medals, they are 1936-1986 with some spill-overs later. The whole history of the Fields medals can traced in the Proceedings of Congresses. They are interesting in many other respects too. For example, they contain a lot of very good expository papers (and many more of bad ones). It is worthwhile at least to browse them. Now they are freely available online: ICM Proceedings 1893-2010.

The presentation of work of 1954 medalists J.-P. Serre and K. Kodaira by H. Weyl is a pleasure to read. H. Weyl unequivocally tells that their mathematics is new and went into a new territory and is based on methods unknown to most of mathematicians at the time (in fact, this is still true). He even included an introduction to these methods in the published version.

The 1990 award at the Kyoto Congress was a turning point. Ludwig D. Faddeev was the Chairman of the Fields Medal Committee and the President of the IMU for the preceding 4 years. 3 out of 4 medals went to scientists significant part of whose works was directly related to his or his students’ works. The influence went in both directions: for one winner the influence went mostly from L.D. Faddeev and his pupils, for two other winners their work turned out to be very suitable for a synthesis with some ideas of L.D. Faddeev and his pupils. All these works are related to the theoretical physics. Actually, after reading the recollections of L.D. Faddeev and prefaces to his books, it is completely clear that he is a theoretical physicists at heart, despite he has some interesting mathematical results and he is formally (judging by the positions he held, for example) considered to be a mathematician.

The 1990 was the only year when one of the medals went to a physicist. Naturally, he never proved a theorem. But his papers from 1980-1994 contain a lot of mathematical content, mostly conjectures motivated by quantum field theory reasoning. There is no doubt that his ideas are highly original from the point of view of a mathematician (and much less so from the point of view of someone using Feynman’s integrals daily), that they provided mathematicians with a lot of problems to think about, and indeed resulted in quite interesting developments in mathematics. But many mathematicians, including myself, believe that the Fields medals should be awarded to outstanding mathematicians, and a mathematician should prove his or her claims. I don’t know any award in mathematics which could be awarded for conjectures only.

In 1994 one of the medals went to the son of the President of the IMU at the time. Many people think that this is far beyond any ethical norms. The President could resign from his position the moment the name of his son surfaced. Moreover, he should decline the offer of this position in 1990. It is impossible to believe that that guy did not suspect that his son will be a viable candidate in 2-3 years (if his son indeed deserved the medal). The President of IMU is the person who is able, if he or she wants, to essentially determine the winners, because the selection of the members of the Fields medal Committee is essentially in his or her hands (unless there is a insurrection in the community – but this never happened).

As a result, the system was completely destroyed in just two cycles without any changes in bylaws or procedures (since the procedures are kept in a secret, I cannot be sure about the latter). Still, some really good mathematicians got a medal. Moreover, in 2002 it looked like the system recovered. Unfortunately already in 2006 things were the same as in the 1990ies. One of the awards was outrageous on ethical grounds (completely different from 1994); the long negotiations with Grisha Perelman remind plays by Eugène Ionesco.

In the current situation I would be able to predict the winners if I would knew the composition of the committee. Since this is impossible, I will pretend that the committee is as impartial as it was in 1950-1986. This is almost (but not completely) equivalent to telling my preferences.

I would be especially happy if an impartial committee will award only 2 medals and Manjul Bhargava and Jacob Lurie will be the winners. I hope that their advisors are not on the committee. Their works look very attractive to me. I suspect that Jacob Lurie is the only mathematician working now and comparable with the giants of the golden age. But I do not have enough time to study his papers, or, rather, his books. They are just too long for everybody except people working in the same field. Usually they are hundreds pages long; his only published book (which covers only preliminaries) is almost 1000 pages long. Papers by Manjul Bhargava seem to be more accessible (definitely, they are much shorter). But I am not an expert in his field and I would need to study a lot before jumping into his papers. I do not have enough motivation for this now. An impartial committee would be reinforce my high opinion about their work and provide an additional stimulus to study them deeper. The problem is that I have no reason to expect the committee to be impartial.

Arthur Avila is very strong, or so tell me my expert friends. His field is too narrow for my taste. The main problem is that his case is bound to be political. It depends on the balance of power between, approximately, Cambridge, MA – Berkley and Rio de Janeiro – Paris. Here I had intentionally distorted the geolocation data.

The high ratings in that poll of Manjul Bhargava and Artur Avila are the examples of the “name recognition” I mentioned. I think that an article about Manjul Bhargava appeared even in the New York Times. Being a strong mathematician from a so-called developing country (it seems that the term “non-declining” would be better for English-speaking countries), Artur Avila is known much better than American or British mathematicians of the same level.

Most of mathematicians included in the poll wouldn’t be ever considered by anybody as candidates during the golden age. There would be several dozens of the same level in the same broadly defined area of mathematical. Sections of the Congress can serve as the first approximation to a good notion of an area of mathematics. And a Fields medalist was supposed to be really outstanding. Restricting myself by the poll list I prefer one of the following variants: either Bhargava, or Lurie, or both or no medals for the lack of suitable candidates.

Next post: Did J. Lurie solved any big problem?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

2014 Fields medalists?

Previous post: New comments to the post "What is mathematics?"

I was asked by Tamas Gabal about possible 2014 Fields medalists listed in an online poll. I am neither ready to systematically write down my thoughts about the prizes in general and Fields medals in particular, nor to predict who will get 2014 medals. I am sure that the world would be better without any prizes, especially without Fields medals. Also, in my opinion, no more than two persons deserve 2014 Fields medals. Instead of trying to argue these points, I will quote my reply to Tamas Gabal (slightly edited).

Would I know who the members of the Fields medal committee are, I would be able to predict medalists with 99% confidence. But the composition of the committee is a secret. In the past, the situation was rather different. The composition of the committee wasn't important. When I was just a second year graduate student, I compiled a list of 10 candidates, among whom I considered 5 to have significantly higher chances (I never wrote down this partition, and the original list is lost for all practical purposes). All 4 winners were on the list. I was especially proud of predicting one of them; he was a fairly nontraditional at the time (or so I thought). I cannot do anything like this now without knowing the composition of the committee. Recent choices appear to be more or less random, with some obvious exceptions (like Grisha Perelman).

Somewhat later I wrote:

In the meantime I looked at the current results of that poll. Look like the preferences of the public are determined by the same mechanism as the preferences for movie actors and actresses: the name recognition.

Tamas Gabal replied:

Sowa, when you were a graduate student and made that list of possible winners, did you not rely on name recognition at least partially? Were you familiar with their work? That would be pretty impressive for a graduate student, since T. Gowers basically admitted that he was not really familiar with the work of Fields medalists in 2010, while he was a member of the committee. I wonder if anyone can honestly compare the depth of the work of all these candidates? The committee will seek an opinion of senior people in each area (again, based on name recognition, positions, etc.) and will be influenced by whoever makes the best case... It's not an easy job for sure.

Here is my reply.

Good question. In order to put a name on a list, one has to know this name, i.e. recognize it. But I knew much more than 10 names. Actually, this is one of the topics I wanted to write about sometime in details. The whole atmosphere at that time was completely different from what I see around now. May be the place also played some role, but I doubt that its role was decisive. Most of the people around me liked to talk about mathematics, and not only about what they were doing. When some guy in Japan claimed that he proved the Riemann hypothesis, I knew about this the same week. Note that the internet was still in the future, as were e-mails. I had a feeling that I know about everything important going on in mathematics. I always had a little bit more curiosity than others, so I knew also about fields fairly remote from own work.

I do not remember all 10 names on my list (I remember about 7), but 4 winners were included. It was quite easy to guess 3 of them. Everybody would agree that they were the main contenders. I am really proud about guessing the 4th one. Nobody around was talking about him or even mentioned him, and his field is quite far from my own interests. To what extent I understood their work? I studied some work of one winner, knew the statements and had some idea about their proof for another one (later the work of both of them influenced a lot my own work, but mostly indirectly), and very well knew what are the achievements of the third one, why they are important, etc. I knew more or less just the statements of two main results of the 4th one, the one who was difficult to guess – for me. I was able to explain why this or that guy got the medal even to a theoretical physicist (actually did on one occasion). But I wasn’t able to teach a topic course about works of any of the 4.

At the time I never heard any complaints that a medal went to a wrong person. The same about all older awards. There was always a consensus in the mathematical community than all the people who got the medal deserved it. May be somebody else also deserved it too, but there are only 3 or 4 of them each time.

Mathematics is a human activity. This is one of the facts that T. Gowers prefers to ignore. Nobody verifies proofs line by line. Initially, you trust your guts feelings. If you need to use a theorem, you will be forced to study the proof and understand its main ideas. The same is true about the deepness of a result. You do not need to know all the proofs in order to write down a list like my list of 10 most likely winners (next time my list consisted of no more than 5 or 6, all winner were included). It seems that I knew the work of all guessed winners better than Gowers knew the work of 2010 medalists. But even if not, there is a huge difference between a graduate student trying to guess the current year winners, and a Fellow of the London Royal Society, a Fields medalist himself, who is deciding who will get 2010 medals. He should know more.

The job is surely not an easy one now, when it is all about politics. Otherwise it would be very pleasant.

Next post: Guessing who will get Fields medals - Some history and 2014.