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Israel Gelfand, who made profound and prolific contributions to many areas of mathematics, including functional analysis, representation theory, operator algebras, and partial differential equations, died on Monday, age 96.
Gelfand’s beautiful theory of -algebras and related spaces made quite an impact on me as a graduate student in Princeton, to the point where I was seriously considering working in this area; but there was not much activity in operator algebras at the time there, and I ended up working in harmonic analysis under Eli Stein instead. (Though I am currently involved in another operator algebras project, of which I hope to be able to discuss in the near future. The commutative version of Gelfand’s theory is discussed in these lecture notes of mine.)
I met Gelfand only once, in one of the famous “Gelfand seminars” at the IHES in 2000. The speaker was Tim Gowers, on his new proof of Szemerédi’s theorem. (Endre Szemerédi, incidentally, was Gelfand’s student.) Gelfand’s introduction to the seminar, on the subject of Banach spaces which both mathematicians contributed so greatly to, was approximately as long as Gowers’ talk itself!
There are far too many contributions to mathematics by Gelfand to name here, so I will only mention two. The first are the Gelfand-Tsetlin patterns, induced by an Hermitian matrix . Such matrices have real eigenvalues . If one takes the top minor, this is another Hermitian matrix, whose eigenvalues intersperse the eigenvalues of the original matrix: for every . This interspersing can be easily seen from the minimax characterisation
of the eigenvalues of , with the eigenvalues of the minor being similar but with now restricted to a subspace of rather than .
Similarly, the eigenvalues of the top minor of intersperse those of the previous minor. Repeating this procedure one eventually gets a pyramid of real numbers of height and width , with the numbers in each row interspersing the ones in the row below. Such a pattern is known as a Gelfand-Tsetlin pattern. The space of such patterns forms a convex cone, and (if one fixes the initial eigenvalues ) becomes a compact convex polytope. If one fixes the initial eigenvalues of but chooses the eigenvectors randomly (using the Haar measure of the unitary group), then the resulting Gelfand-Tsetlin pattern is uniformly distributed across this polytope; the case of this observation is essentially the classic observation of Archimedes that the cross-sectional areas of a sphere and a circumscribing cylinder are the same. (Ultimately, the reason for this is that the Gelfand-Tsetlin pattern almost turns the space of all with a fixed spectrum (i.e. the co-adjoint orbit associated to that spectrum) into a toric variety. More precisely, there exists a mostly diffeomorphic map from the co-adjoint orbit to a (singular) toric variety, and the Gelfand-Tsetlin pattern induces a complete set of action variables on that variety.) There is also a “quantum” (or more precisely, representation-theoretic) version of this observation, in which one can decompose any irreducible representation of the unitary group into a canonical basis (the Gelfand-Tsetlin basis), indexed by integer-valued Gelfand-Tsetlin patterns, by first decomposing this representation into irreducible representations of , then , and so forth.
The structure, symplectic geometry, and representation theory of Gelfand-Tsetlin patterns was enormously influential in my own work with Allen Knutson on honeycomb patterns, which control the sums of Hermitian matrices and also the structure constants of the tensor product operation for representations of ; indeed, Gelfand-Tsetlin patterns arise as the degenerate limit of honeycombs in three different ways, and we in fact discovered honeycombs by trying to glue three Gelfand-Tsetlin patterns together. (See for instance our Notices article for more discussion. The honeycomb analogue of the representation-theoretic properties of these patterns was eventually established by Henriques and Kamnitzer, using crystals and their Kashiwara bases.)
The second contribution of Gelfand I want to discuss is the Gelfand-Levitan-Marchenko equation for solving the one-dimensional inverse scattering problem: given the scattering data of an unknown potential function , recover . This is already interesting in and of itself, but is also instrumental in solving integrable systems such as the Korteweg-de Vries equation, because the Lax pair formulation of such equations implies that they can be linearised (and solved explicitly) by applying the scattering and inverse scattering transforms associated with the Lax operator. I discuss the derivation of this equation below the fold.