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[Once again, some advertising on behalf of my department, following on a similar announcement in the previous three years.]

Two years ago, the UCLA mathematics department launched a scholarship opportunity for entering freshman students with exceptional background and promise in mathematics. We have offered one scholarship every year, but this year due to an additional source of funding, we will also be able to offer an additional scholarship for California residents.The UCLA Math Undergraduate Merit Scholarship provides for full tuition, and a room and board allowance for 4 years. In addition, scholarship recipients follow an individualized accelerated program of study, as determined after consultation with UCLA faculty.   The program of study leads to a Masters degree in Mathematics in four years.
More information and an application form for the scholarship can be found on the web at:
and
To be considered for Fall 2013, candidates must apply for the scholarship and also for admission to UCLA on or before November 30, 2012.

Garth Gaudry, who made many contributions to harmonic analysis and to Australian mathematics, and was also both my undergradaute and masters advisor as well as the head of school during one of my first academic jobs, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer, aged 71.

Garth worked on the interface between real-variable harmonic analysis and abstract harmonic analysis (which, despite their names, are actually two distinct fields, though certainly related to each other).  He was one of the first to realise the central importance of Littlewood-Paley theory as a general foundation for both abstract and real-variable harmonic analysis, writing an influential text with Robert Edwards on the topic.  He also made contributions to Clifford analysis, which was also the topic of my masters thesis.

But, amongst Australian mathematicians at least, Garth will be remembered for his tireless service to the field, most notably for his pivotal role in founding the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) and then serving as AMSI’s first director, and then in directing the International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM), the educational arm of AMSI which, among other things, developed a full suite of maths textbooks and related educational materials covering Years 5-10 (which I reviewed here back in 2008).

I knew Garth ever since I was an undergraduate at Flinders University.   He was head of school then (a position roughly equivalent to department chair in the US), but still was able to spare an hour a week to meet with me to discuss real analysis, as I worked my way through Rudin’s “Real and complex analysis” and then Stein’s “Singular integrals”, and then eventually completed a masters thesis under his supervision on Clifford-valued singular integrals.  When Princeton accepted my application for graduate study, he convinced me to take the opportunity without hesitation.  Without Garth, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am at today, and I will always be very grateful for his advisorship.  He was a good person, and he will be missed very much by me and by many others.

Bill Thurston, who made fundamental contributions to our understanding of low-dimensional manifolds and related structures, died on Tuesday, aged 65.

Perhaps Thurston’s best known achievement is the proof of the hyperbolisation theorem for Haken manifolds, which showed that 3-manifolds which obeyed a certain number of topological conditions, could always be given a hyperbolic geometry (i.e. a Riemannian metric that made the manifold isometric to a quotient of the hyperbolic 3-space $H^3$).  This difficult theorem connecting the topological and geometric structure of 3-manifolds led Thurston to give his influential geometrisation conjecture, which (in principle, at least) completely classifies the topology of an arbitrary compact 3-manifold as a combination of eight model geometries (now known as Thurston model geometries).  This conjecture has many consequences, including Thurston’s hyperbolisation theorem and (most famously) the Poincaré conjecture.  Indeed, by placing that conjecture in the context of a conceptually appealing general framework, of which many other cases could already be verified, Thurston provided one of the strongest pieces of evidence towards the truth of the Poincaré conjecture, until the work of Grisha Perelman in 2002-2003 proved both the Poincaré conjecture and the geometrisation conjecture by developing Hamilton’s Ricci flow methods.  (There are now several variants of Perelman’s proof of both conjectures; in the proof of geometrisation by Bessieres, Besson, Boileau, Maillot, and Porti, Thurston’s hyperbolisation theorem is a crucial ingredient, allowing one to bypass the need for the theory of Alexandrov spaces in a key step in Perelman’s argument.)

One of my favourite results of Thurston’s is his elegant method for everting the sphere (smoothly turning a sphere $S^2$ in ${\bf R}^3$ inside out without any folds or singularities).  The fact that sphere eversion can be achieved at all is highly unintuitive, and is often referred to as Smale’s paradox, as Stephen Smale was the first to give a proof that such an eversion exists.  However, prior to Thurston’s method, the known constructions for sphere eversion were quite complicated.  Thurston’s method, relying on corrugating and then twisting the sphere, is sufficiently conceptual and geometric that it can in fact be explained quite effectively in non-technical terms, as was done in the following excellent video entitled “Outside In“, and produced by the Geometry Center:

In addition to his direct mathematical research contributions, Thurston was also an amazing mathematical expositor, having the rare knack of being able to describe the process of mathematical thinking in addition to the results of that process and the intuition underlying it.  His wonderful essay “On proof and progress in mathematics“, which I highly recommend, is the quintessential instance of this; more recent examples include his many insightful questions and answers on MathOverflow.

I unfortunately never had the opportunity to meet Thurston in person (although we did correspond a few times online), but I know many mathematicians who have been profoundly influenced by him and his work.  His death is a great loss for mathematics.

The National Academy of Sciences award for Scientific Reviewing is slated to be given in Mathematics (understood to include Applied Mathematics) in April 2013.  The award cycles among many fields, and the last (and only) time it was given in Mathematics was 1995.  This year, I am on the prize committee for this award and am therefore circulating a call for nominations.

This award is intended “to recognize authors whose reviews have synthesized extensive and difficult material, rendering a significant service to science and influencing the course of scientific thought”.   As such, it is slightly different in focus from most awards in mathematics, which tend to focus more on original research contributions than on synthesis and exposition, which in my opinion is an equally important component of mathematical research.

In 1995, this prize was awarded to Rob Kirby “For his list of problems in low-dimensional topology and his tireless maintenance of it; several generations have been greatly influenced by Kirby’s list.”.

Instructions for how to submit nominations can be found at this page.  Nominees and awardees do not need to be members of the Academy, and can be based outside of the United States.   The award comes with a medal and a 10,000 prize. The deadline for nominations is 1 October 2012. I’ve just opened the research thread for the mini-polymath4 project over at the polymath blog to collaboratively solve one of the six questions from this year’s IMO. This year I have selected Q3, which is a somewhat intricate game-theoretic question. (The full list of questions this year may be found here.) This post will serve as the discussion thread of the project, intended to focus all the non-research aspects of the project such as organisational matters or commentary on the progress of the project. The third component of the project is the wiki page, which is intended to summarise the progress made so far on the problem. As with the previous mini-polymath projects, I myself will be serving primarily as a moderator, and hope other participants will take the lead in the research and in keeping the wiki up-to-date. Just a reminder that the mini-polymath4 project will begin in three hours at Thu July 12 2012 UTC 22:00. For the past few months, Cambridge University Press (in consultation with a number of mathematicians, including Tim Gowers and myself) has been preparing to launch a new open access journal (or more precisely, a complex of journals – see below) in mathematics, under the title “Forum of Mathematics“, as an experiment in moving away from the traditional library subscription based model of mathematical academic publishing. (The initial planning for this journal happened to precede the Cost of Knowledge boycott, but the philosophy behind the journal is certainly aligned with that of the boycott, which I believe is further evidence that the time has come for mathematical journal reform.) The journal will formally begin accepting submissions on October 1st, but it has already been officially announced by Cambridge University Press, with an editorial board (with Rob Kirby as managing editor, thirteen other editors including Tim and myself, and a board of associate editors that is still in the process of being assembled) and FAQ already in place. In many respects, Forum of Mathematics functions as a regular mathematics journal, in that papers are submitted by the authors, sent out to referees by the editors, and (if accepted) published by the Forum. There are however a couple of important features that distinguish the Forum from traditional mathematics journals. The first is the open access, publication-charge based publishing model (sometimes known as “gold open access”). Namely, all articles will be freely available without subscription charges, but authors, upon their paper being accepted, be asked to pay a publication charge to cover costs. The publication charges will be set at zero for the first three years, and then raised to somewhere around £500 GBP or750 USD after the initial three-year period (with fee waivers available for authors from developing countries).  (One reason that the publication charges are not entirely fixed at this point is that there is the possibility of obtaining additional funding sources for this journal, for instance from philanthropic organisations, which may allow for fee reductions or additional waivers.)    This is of course a non-trivial sum of money, but it is significantly lower than the charges for most other gold open access journals.   Also, editorial decisions will not be influenced by the author’s ability to pay for the charges, which only come into effect in the event that the paper is accepted for publication.

(One way in which Cambridge University Press is keeping costs low, by the way, is to keep the journal purely electronic, with physical issues available on a print-on-demand basis only.  A side benefit of this choice is that there is no hard constraint on how many or how few pages will be published each year, so that acceptance decisions will not be influenced by artificial constraints such as the size of the journal backlog.)

Another distinctive feature of Forum of Mathematics lies in its scope and structure.  It is not exactly a single journal, but is instead a complex consisting of a generalist flagship journal (officially known as Forum of Mathematics, Pi) and a specialist journal (Forum of Mathematics, Sigma) which is in turn loosely organised for editorial purposes into “clusters” for each of the major subfields of mathematics (analysis, topology, algebra, discrete mathematics, etc.).   As a first approximation, Pi is intended as a top-tier journal (on the level of, say, the Journal of the American Mathematical Society, Inventiones, or Annals of Mathematics) that only accepts significant papers of interest to a wide audience of mathematicians, while Sigma resembles a collection of specialist journals, one for each major subfield of mathematics.  However, the journals will be using the same editorial interface, and so it will be possible to easily transfer a submission between journals or clusters (while retaining all the referee reports and other editorial data).  This is meant to help address a common issue in traditional mathematical journals, namely that if the editorial board decides that a submission falls too far outside the scope of the journal, or is not quite at the desired level of quality, then the authors have to start all over again with a new journal (and new referee reports).    Of course, it is still possible (and perhaps even fairly common) that a submission to Forum of Mathematics will be deemed unsuitable for either Pi or Sigma, and thus rejected entirely; but the structure of the Forum should give some additional flexibility, to reduce the frequency that papers are rejected for artificial reasons such as being out of scope.  (Of course, we would still expect authors to aim their submission at the most appropriate location to begin with, in order to reduce the time and effort expended on processing the paper by everyone involved.)

Further discussion of this journal can be found at Tim Gowers’ blog.   It should be fully operational in a few months (barring last-minute hitches, we should be open for submissions on 1 October 2012).    Of course, a single journal is not going to resolve all the extant concerns about the need for journal publishing reform, such as those raised in the Cost of Knowledge boycott; but I feel that it is important to have some experimentation with different publishing models, to see what alternatives to the status quo are possible.

Two quick updates with regards to polymath projects.  Firstly, given the poll on starting the mini-polymath4 project, I will start the project at Thu July 12 2012 UTC 22:00.  As usual, the main research thread on this project will be held at the polymath blog, with the discussion thread hosted separately on this blog.

Second, the Polymath7 project, which seeks to establish the “hot spots conjecture” for acute-angled triangles, has made a fair amount of progress so far; for instance, the first part of the conjecture (asserting that the second Neumann eigenfunction of an acute non-equilateral triangle is simple) is now solved, and the second part (asserting that the “hot spots” (i.e. extrema) of that second eigenfunction lie on the boundary of the triangle) has been solved in a number of special cases (such as the isosceles case).  It’s been quite an active discussion in the last week or so, with almost 200 comments across two threads (and a third thread freshly opened up just now).  While the problem is still not completely solved, I feel optimistic that it should fall within the next few weeks (if nothing else, it seems that the problem is now at least amenable to a brute force numerical attack, though personally I would prefer to see a more conceptual solution).

Two polymath related items for this post. Firstly, there is a new polymath proposal over at the polymath blog, proposing to attack the “hot spots conjecture” (concerning a maximum principle for a heat equation) in the case when the domain is an acute-angled triangle (the case of the right and obtuse-angled triangles already being solved). Please feel free to comment on the proposal blog post if you are interested in participating.

Secondly, it is once again time to set up the annual “mini-polymath” project to collaboratively solve one of this year’s International Mathematical Olympiad problems. This year, the Olympiad is being held in Argentina, with the problems given out on July 10-11. As usual, there will be a wiki page, discussion thread, and research thread for the project. As in previous years, the first thing to resolve is the starting date and time, so I am setting up a poll here to fix a time (and also to get a preliminary indication of interest in the project).  (I am using 24-hour Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) for these times.  Here is a link that converts the first time given in the poll (Thu Jul 12 2012 UTC 6:00) into other time zones.) Given that the last three mini-polymaths were reasonably successful, I am not planning any changes to the format, but of course if there are any suggestions for changes, I’d be happy to hear them in the comments.

High school algebra marks a key transition point in one’s early mathematical education, and is a common point at which students feel that mathematics becomes really difficult. One of the reasons for this is that the problem solving process for a high school algebra question is significantly more free-form than the mechanical algorithms one is taught for elementary arithmetic, and a certain amount of planning and strategy now comes into play. For instance, if one wants to, say, write ${\frac{1,572,342}{4,124}}$ as a mixed fraction, there is a clear (albeit lengthy) algorithm to do this: one simply sets up the long division problem, extracts the quotient and remainder, and organises these numbers into the desired mixed fraction. After a suitable amount of drill, this is a task that can be accomplished by a large fraction of students at the middle school level. But if, for instance, one has to solve a system of equations such as

$\displaystyle a^2 + bc = 7$

$\displaystyle 2b - c = 1$

$\displaystyle a + 2 = c$

for ${a,b,c}$, there is no similarly mechanical procedure that can be easily taught to a high school student in order to solve such a problem “mindlessly”. (I doubt, for instance, that any attempt to teach Buchberger’s algorithm to such students will be all that successful.) Instead, one is taught the basic “moves” (e.g. multiplying both sides of an equation by some factor, subtracting one equation from another, substituting an expression for a variable into another equation, and so forth), and some basic principles (e.g. simplifying an expression whenever possible, for instance by gathering terms, or solving for one variable in terms of others in order to eliminate it from the system). It is then up to the student to find a suitable combination of moves that isolates each of the variables in turn, to reveal their identities.

Once one is sufficiently expert in algebraic manipulation, this is not all that difficult to do, but when one is just starting to learn algebra, this type of problem can be quite daunting, in part because of an “embarrasment of riches”; there are several possible “moves” one could try to apply to the equations given, and to the novice it is not always clear in advance which moves will simplify the problem and which ones will make it more complicated. Often, such a student may simply try moves at random, which can lead to a dishearteningly large amount of effort expended without getting any closer to a solution. What is worse, each move introduces the possibility of an arithmetic error (such as a sign error), the effect of which is usually not apparent until the student finally arrives at his or her solution and either checks it against the original equation, or submits the answer to be graded. (My own son can get quite frustrated after performing a lengthy series of computations to solve an algebra problem, only to be told that the answer was wrong due to an arithmetic error; I am sure this experience is common to many other schoolchildren.)

It occurred to me recently, though, that the set of problem-solving skills needed to solve algebra problems (and, to some extent, calculus problems also) is somewhat similar to the set of skills needed to solve puzzle-type computer games, in which a certain limited set of moves must be applied in a certain order to achieve a desired result. (There are countless games of this general type; a typical example is “Factory balls“.) Given that the computer game format is already quite familiar to many schoolchildren, one could then try to teach the strategy component of algebraic problem-solving via such a game, which could automate mechanical tasks such as gathering terms and performing arithmetic in order to reduce some of the more frustrating aspects of algebra. (Note that this is distinct from the type of maths games one often sees on educational web sites, which are usually based on asking the player to correctly answer some maths problem in order to advance within the game, making the game essentially a disguised version of a maths quiz. Here, the focus is not so much on being able to supply the correct answer, but on being able to select an effective problem-solving strategy.)

It is difficult to explain in words exactly what type of game I have in mind, so I decided to create a quick mockup of what a sample “level” would look like here (note: requires Java). I didn’t want to spend too much time to make this mockup, so I wrote it in Scratch, which is a somewhat limited programming language intended for use by children, but which has the benefit of being able to churn out simple but functional apps very quickly (the mockup took less than half an hour to write). (I would certainly not attempt to write a full game in this language, though.) In this mockup level, the objective is to solve a single linear equation in one variable, such as ${2x+7=11}$, with only two “moves” available: the ability to subtract ${1}$ from both sides of the equation, and the ability to divide both sides of the equation by ${2}$, which one performs by clicking on an appropriate icon.

It seems to me that one could actually teach a fair amount of algebra through a game such as this, with a progressively difficult sequence of levels that gradually introduce more and more types of “moves” that can handle increasingly difficult problems (e.g. simultaneous linear equations in several unknowns, quadratic equations in one or more variables, inequalities, etc.). Even within a single class of problem, such as solving linear equations, one could create additional challenge by placing some restriction on the available moves, for instance by limiting the number of available moves (as was done in the mockup), or requiring that each move cost some amount of game currency (which might possibly be waived if one is willing to perform the move “by hand”, i.e. by entering the transformed equation manually). And of course one could also make the graphics, sound, and gameplay fancier (e.g. by allowing for various competitive gameplay modes). One could also imagine some other types of high-school and lower-division undergraduate mathematics being amenable to this sort of gamification (calculus and ODE comes to mind, and maybe propositional logic), though I doubt that one could use it effectively for advanced undergraduate or graduate topics. (Though I have sometimes wished for an “integrate by parts” or “use Sobolev embedding” button when trying to control solutions to a PDE…)

This would however be a fair amount of work to actually implement, and is not something I could do by myself with the time I have available these days. But perhaps it may be possible to develop such a game (or platform for such a game) collaboratively, somewhat in the spirit of the polymath projects? I have almost no experience in modern software development (other than a summer programming job I had as a teenager, which hardly counts), so I would be curious to know how projects such as this actually get started in practice.