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Last week I gave a talk at the Trinity Mathematical Society at Trinity College, Cambridge UK.  As the audience was primarily undergraduate, I gave a fairly non-technical talk on the universality phenomenon, based on this blog article of mine on the same topic.  It was a quite light and informal affair, and this is reflected in the talk slides (which, in particular, play up quite strongly the role of former students and Fellows of Trinity College in this story).   There was some interest in making these slides available publicly, so I have placed them on this site here.  (Note: copyright for the images in these slides has not been secured.)

This week I once again gave some public lectures on the cosmic distance ladder in astronomy, once at Stanford and once at UCLA.  The slides I used were similar to the “version 3.0” slides I used for the same talk last year in Australia and elsewhere, but the images have been updated (and the permissions for copyrighted images secured), and some additional data has also been placed on them.    I am placing these slides here on this blog, in Powerpoint format and also in PDF format.  (Video for the UCLA talk should also be available on the UCLA web site at some point; I’ll add a link when it becomes available.)

These slides have evolved over a period of almost five years, particularly with regards to the imagery, but this is likely to be close to the final version.  Here are some of the older iterations of the slides:

I have found that working on and polishing a single public lecture over a period of several years has been very rewarding and educational, especially given that I had very little public speaking experience at the beginning; there are several other mathematicians I know of who are also putting some effort into giving good talks that communicate mathematics and science to the general public, but I think there could potentially be many more such talks like this.

A note regarding copyright: I am happy to have the text or layout of these slides used as the basis for other presentations, so long as the source is acknowledged.  However, some of the images in these slides are copyrighted by others, and permission by the copyright holders was granted only for the display of the slides in their current format.  (The list of such images is given at the end of the slides.)  So if you wish to adapt the slides for your own purposes, you may need to use slightly different imagery.

(Update, October 11: Version 4.2 uploaded, and notice on copyright added.)

(Update, October 20: Some photos from the UCLA talk are available here.)

(Update, October 25: Video from the talk is available on Youtube and on Itunes.)

This week at UCLA, Pierre-Louis Lions gave one of this year’s Distinguished Lecture Series, on the topic of mean field games. These are a relatively novel class of systems of partial differential equations, that are used to understand the behaviour of multiple agents each individually trying to optimise their position in space and time, but with their preferences being partly determined by the choices of all the other agents, in the asymptotic limit when the number of agents goes to infinity. A good example here is that of traffic congestion: as a first approximation, each agent wishes to get from A to B in the shortest path possible, but the speed at which one can travel depends on the density of other agents in the area. A more light-hearted example is that of a Mexican wave (or audience wave), which can be modeled by a system of this type, in which each agent chooses to stand, sit, or be in an intermediate position based on his or her comfort level, and also on the position of nearby agents.

Under some assumptions, mean field games can be expressed as a coupled system of two equations, a Fokker-Planck type equation evolving forward in time that governs the evolution of the density function ${m}$ of the agents, and a Hamilton-Jacobi (or Hamilton-Jacobi-Bellman) type equation evolving backward in time that governs the computation of the optimal path for each agent. The combination of both forward propagation and backward propagation in time creates some unusual “elliptic” phenomena in the time variable that is not seen in more conventional evolution equations. For instance, for Mexican waves, this model predicts that such waves only form for stadiums exceeding a certain minimum size (and this phenomenon has apparently been confirmed experimentally!).

Due to lack of time and preparation, I was not able to transcribe Lions’ lectures in full detail; but I thought I would describe here a heuristic derivation of the mean field game equations, and mention some of the results that Lions and his co-authors have been working on. (Video of a related series of lectures (in French) by Lions on this topic at the Collége de France is available here.)

To avoid (rather important) technical issues, I will work at a heuristic level only, ignoring issues of smoothness, convergence, existence and uniqueness, etc.

This is an adaptation of a talk I gave recently for a program at IPAM. In this talk, I gave a (very informal and non-rigorous) overview of Hrushovski’s use of model-theoretic techniques to establish new Freiman-type theorems in non-commutative groups, and some recent work in progress of Ben Green, Tom Sanders and myself to establish combinatorial proofs of some of Hrushovski’s results.

This week I was in my home town of Adelaide, Australia, for the 2009 annual meeting of the Australian Mathematical Society. This was a fairly large meeting (almost 500 participants). One of the highlights of such a large meeting is the ability to listen to plenary lectures in fields adjacent to one’s own, in which speakers can give high-level overviews of a subject without getting too bogged down in the technical details. From the talks here I learned a number of basic things which were well known to experts in that field, but which I had not fully appreciated, and so I wanted to share them here.

The first instance of this was from a plenary lecture by Danny Calegari entitled “faces of the stable commutator length (scl) ball”. One thing I learned from this talk is that in homotopy theory, there is a very close relationship between topological spaces (such as manifolds) on one hand, and groups (and generalisations of groups) on the other, so that homotopy-theoretic questions about the former can often be converted to purely algebraic questions about the latter, and vice versa; indeed, it seems that homotopy theorists almost think of topological spaces and groups as being essentially the same concept, despite looking very different at first glance. To get from a space ${X}$ to a group, one looks at homotopy groups ${\pi_n(X)}$ of that space, and in particular the fundamental group ${\pi_1(X)}$; conversely, to get from a group ${G}$ back to a topological space one can use the Eilenberg-Maclane spaces ${K(G,n)}$ associated to that group (and more generally, a Postnikov tower associated to a sequence of such groups, together with additional data). In Danny’s talk, he gave the following specific example: the problem of finding the least complicated embedded surface with prescribed (and homologically trivial) boundary in a space ${X}$, where “least complicated” is measured by genus (or more precisely, the negative component of Euler characteristic), is essentially equivalent to computing the commutator length of the element in the fundamental group ${\pi(X)}$ corresponding to that boundary (i.e. the least number of commutators one is required to multiply together to express the element); and the stable version of this problem (where one allows the surface to wrap around the boundary ${n}$ times for some large ${n}$, and one computes the asymptotic ratio between the Euler characteristic and ${n}$) is similarly equivalent to computing the stable commutator length of that group element. (Incidentally, there is a simple combinatorial open problem regarding commutator length in the free group, which I have placed on the polymath wiki.)

This theme was reinforced by another plenary lecture by Ezra Getzler entitled “${n}$-groups”, in which he showed how sequences of groups (such as the first ${n}$ homotopy groups ${\pi_1(X),\ldots,\pi_n(X)}$) can be enhanced into a more powerful structure known as an ${n}$-group, which is more complicated to define, requiring the machinery of simplicial complexes, sheaves, and nerves. Nevertheless, this gives a very topological and geometric interpretation of the concept of a group and its generalisations, which are of use in topological quantum field theory, among other things.

Mohammed Abuzaid gave a plenary lecture entitled “Functoriality in homological mirror symmetry”. One thing I learned from this talk was that the (partially conjectural) phenomenon of (homological) mirror symmetry is one of several types of duality, in which the behaviour of maps into one mathematical object ${X}$ (e.g. immersed or embedded curves, surfaces, etc.) are closely tied to the behaviour of maps out of a dual mathematical object ${\hat X}$ (e.g. functionals, vector fields, forms, sections, bundles, etc.). A familiar example of this is in linear algebra: by taking adjoints, a linear map into a vector space ${X}$ can be related to an adjoint linear map mapping out of the dual space ${X^*}$. Here, the behaviour of curves in a two-dimensional symplectic manifold (or more generally, Lagrangian submanifolds in a higher-dimensional symplectic manifold), is tied to the behaviour of holomorphic sections on bundles over a dual algebraic variety, where the precise definition of “behaviour” is category-theoretic, involving some rather complicated gadgets such as the Fukaya category of a symplectic manifold. As with many other applications of category theory, it is not just the individual pairings between an object and its dual which are of interest, but also the relationships between these pairings, as formalised by various functors between categories (and natural transformations between functors). (One approach to mirror symmetry was discussed by Shing-Tung Yau at a distinguished lecture at UCLA, as transcribed in this previous post.)

There was a related theme in a talk by Dennis Gaitsgory entitled “The geometric Langlands program”. From my (very superficial) understanding of the Langlands program, the behaviour of specific maps into a reductive Lie group ${G}$, such as representations in ${G}$ of a fundamental group, étale fundamental group, class group, or Galois group of a global field, is conjecturally tied to specific maps out of a dual reductive Lie group ${\hat G}$, such as irreducible automorphic representations of ${\hat G}$, or of various structures (such as derived categories) attached to vector bundles on ${\hat G}$. There are apparently some tentatively conjectured links (due to Witten?) between Langlands duality and mirror symmetry, but they seem at present to be fairly distinct phenomena (one is topological and geometric, the other is more algebraic and arithmetic). For abelian groups, Langlands duality is closely connected to the much more classical Pontryagin duality in Fourier analysis. (There is an analogue of Fourier analysis for nonabelian groups, namely representation theory, but the link from this to the Langlands program is somewhat murky, at least to me.)

Related also to this was a plenary talk by Akshay Venkatesh, entitled “The Cohen-Lenstra heuristics over global fields”. Here, the question concerned the conjectural behaviour of class groups of quadratic fields, and in particular to explain the numerically observed phenomenon that about ${75.4\%}$ of all quadratic fields ${{\Bbb Q}[\sqrt{d}]}$ (with $d$ prime) enjoy unique factorisation (i.e. have trivial class group). (Class groups, as I learned in these two talks, are arithmetic analogues of the (abelianised) fundamental groups in topology, with Galois groups serving as the analogue of the full fundamental group.) One thing I learned here was that there was a canonical way to randomly generate a (profinite) abelian group, by taking the product of randomly generated finite abelian ${p}$-groups for each prime ${p}$. The way to canonically randomly generate a finite abelian ${p}$-group is to take large integers ${n, D}$, and look at the cokernel of a random homomorphism from ${({\mathbb Z}/p^n{\mathbb Z})^d}$ to ${({\mathbb Z}/p^n{\mathbb Z})^d}$. In the limit ${n,d \rightarrow \infty}$ (or by replacing ${{\mathbb Z}/p^n{\mathbb Z}}$ with the ${p}$-adics and just sending ${d \rightarrow \infty}$), this stabilises and generates any given ${p}$-group ${G}$ with probability

$\displaystyle \frac{1}{|\hbox{Aut}(G)|} \prod_{j=1}^\infty (1 - \frac{1}{p^j}), \ \ \ \ \ (1)$

where ${\hbox{Aut}(G)}$ is the group of automorphisms of ${G}$. In particular this leads to the strange identity

$\displaystyle \sum_G \frac{1}{|\hbox{Aut}(G)|} = \prod_{j=1}^\infty (1 - \frac{1}{p^j})^{-1} \ \ \ \ \ (2)$

where ${G}$ ranges over all ${p}$-groups; I do not know how to prove this identity other than via the above probability computation, the proof of which I give below the fold.

Based on the heuristic that the class group should behave “randomly” subject to some “obvious” constraints, it is expected that a randomly chosen real quadratic field ${{\Bbb Q}[\sqrt{d}]}$ has unique factorisation (i.e. the class group has trivial ${p}$-group component for every ${p}$) with probability

$\displaystyle \prod_{p \hbox{ odd}} \prod_{j=2}^\infty (1 - \frac{1}{p^j}) \approx 0.754,$

whereas a randomly chosen imaginary quadratic field ${{\Bbb Q}[\sqrt{-d}]}$ has unique factorisation with probability

$\displaystyle \prod_{p \hbox{ odd}} \prod_{j=1}^\infty (1 - \frac{1}{p^j}) = 0.$

The former claim is conjectural, whereas the latter claim follows from (for instance) Siegel’s theorem on the size of the class group, as discussed in this previous post. Ellenberg, Venkatesh, and Westerland have recently established some partial results towards the function field analogues of these heuristics.

Next month, I am scheduled to give a short speech (three to five minutes in length) at the annual induction ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.  This is a bit different from the usual scientific talks that I am used to giving; there are no projectors, blackboards, or other visual aids available, and the audience of Academy members is split evenly between the humanities and the sciences (as well as people in industry and politics), so this will be an interesting new experience for me.  (The last time I gave a speech was in 1985.)

My chosen topic is on the future impact of internet-based technologies on academia (somewhat similar in theme to my recent talk on this topic).  I have a draft text below the fold, though it is currently too long and my actual speech is likely to be a significantly abridged version of the one below [Update, Oct 12: The abridged speech is now at the bottom of the post.]  In the spirit of the theme of the talk, I would of course welcome any comments and suggestions.

For comparison, the talks from last year’s ceremony, by Jim Simons, Peter Kim, Susan Athey, Earl Lewis, and Indra Nooyi, can be found here.  Jim’s chosen topic, incidentally, was what mathematics is, and why mathematicians do it.

[Update, Nov 3: Video of the various talks by myself and the other speakers (Emmylou Harris, James Earl Jones, Elizabeth Nabel, Ronald Marc George, and Edward Villela) is now available on the Academy web site here.]

I am posting the last two talks in my Clay-Mahler lecture series here:

[Update, Sep 14: Poincaré conjecture slides revised.]

[Update, Sep 18: Prime slides revised also.]

I am uploading another of my Clay-Mahler lectures here, namely my public talk on the cosmic distance ladder (4.3MB, PDF).  These slides are based on my previous talks of the same name, but I have updated and reorganised the graphics significantly as I was not fully satisfied with the previous arrangement.

[Update, Sep 4: slides updated.  The Powerpoint version of the slides (8MB) are available here.]

[Update, Oct 26: slides updated again.]

I am posting here four more of my Mahler lectures, each of which is based on earlier talks of mine:

As always, comments, corrections, and other feedback are welcome.

I’ll be in Australia for the next month or so, giving my share of the Clay-Mahler lectures at various institutions in the country.  My first lecture is next Monday at Melbourne University, entitled “Mathematical research and the internet“.  This public lecture discusses how various internet technologies (such as blogging) are beginning to transform the way mathematicians do research.

In the spirit of that article, I have decided to upload an advance copy of the talk here, and would welcome any comments or feedback (I still have a little bit of time to revise the article).   [NB: the PDF file is about 5MB in size; the original Powerpoint presentation was 10MB!]

[Update, August 31: the talk has been updated in view of feedback from this blog and elsewhere.  For comparison, the older version of the talk can be found here.]

[Update, Sep 4: Video of the talk and other information is available here.]