You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘non-technical’ category.

Just a short post to note that Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has just announced that the 2017 Abel prize has been awarded to Yves Meyer, “for his pivotal role in the development of the mathematical theory of wavelets”.  The actual prize ceremony will be at Oslo in May.

I am actually in Oslo myself currently, having just presented Meyer’s work at the announcement ceremony (and also having written a brief description of some of his work).  The Abel prize has a somewhat unintuitive (and occasionally misunderstood) arrangement in which the presenter of the work of the prize is selected independently of the winner of the prize (I think in part so that the choice of presenter gives no clues as to the identity of the laureate).  In particular, like other presenters before me (which in recent years have included Timothy Gowers, Jordan Ellenberg, and Alex Bellos), I agreed to present the laureate’s work before knowing who the laureate was!  But in this case the task was very easy, because Meyer’s areas of (both pure and applied) harmonic analysis and PDE fell rather squarely within my own area of expertise.  (I had previously written about some other work of Meyer in this blog post.)  Indeed I had learned about Meyer’s wavelet constructions as a graduate student while taking a course from Ingrid Daubechies.   Daubechies also made extremely important contributions to the theory of wavelets, but my understanding is that due to a conflict of interest arising from Daubechies’ presidency of the International Mathematical Union (which nominates members of the Abel prize committee) from 2011 to 2014, she was not eligible for the prize this year, and so I do not think this prize should be necessarily construed as a judgement on the relative contributions of Meyer and Daubechies to this field.  (In any case I fully agree with the Abel prize committee’s citation of Meyer’s pivotal role in the development of the theory of wavelets.)

The self-chosen remit of my blog is “Updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics”.  Of the 774 posts on this blog, I estimate that about 99% of the posts indeed relate to mathematics, mathematicians, or the administration of this mathematical blog, and only about 1% are not related to mathematics or the community of mathematicians in any significant fashion.

This is not one of the 1%.

Mathematical research is clearly an international activity.  But actually a stronger claim is true: mathematical research is a transnational activity, in that the specific nationality of individual members of a research team or research community are (or should be) of no appreciable significance for the purpose of advancing mathematics.  For instance, even during the height of the Cold War, there was no movement in (say) the United States to boycott Soviet mathematicians or theorems, or to only use results from Western literature (though the latter did sometimes happen by default, due to the limited avenues of information exchange between East and West, and former did occasionally occur for political reasons, most notably with the Soviet Union preventing Gregory Margulis from traveling to receive his Fields Medal in 1978 EDIT: and also Sergei Novikov in 1970).    The national origin of even the most fundamental components of mathematics, whether it be the geometry (γεωμετρία) of the ancient Greeks, the algebra (الجبر) of the Islamic world, or the Hindu-Arabic numerals 0,1,\dots,9, are primarily of historical interest, and have only a negligible impact on the worldwide adoption of these mathematical tools. While it is true that individual mathematicians or research teams sometimes compete with each other to be the first to solve some desired problem, and that a citizen could take pride in the mathematical achievements of researchers from their country, one did not see any significant state-sponsored “space races” in which it was deemed in the national interest that a particular result ought to be proven by “our” mathematicians and not “theirs”.   Mathematical research ability is highly non-fungible, and the value added by foreign students and faculty to a mathematics department cannot be completely replaced by an equivalent amount of domestic students and faculty, no matter how large and well educated the country (though a state can certainly work at the margins to encourage and support more domestic mathematicians).  It is no coincidence that all of the top mathematics department worldwide actively recruit the best mathematicians regardless of national origin, and often retain immigration counsel to assist with situations in which these mathematicians come from a country that is currently politically disfavoured by their own.

Of course, mathematicians cannot ignore the political realities of the modern international order altogether.  Anyone who has organised an international conference or program knows that there will inevitably be visa issues to resolve because the host country makes it particularly difficult for certain nationals to attend the event.  I myself, like many other academics working long-term in the United States, have certainly experienced my own share of immigration bureaucracy, starting with various glitches in the renewal or application of my J-1 and O-1 visas, then to the lengthy vetting process for acquiring permanent residency (or “green card”) status, and finally to becoming naturalised as a US citizen (retaining dual citizenship with Australia).  Nevertheless, while the process could be slow and frustrating, there was at least an order to it.  The rules of the game were complicated, but were known in advance, and did not abruptly change in the middle of playing it (save in truly exceptional situations, such as the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks).  One just had to study the relevant visa regulations (or hire an immigration lawyer to do so), fill out the paperwork and submit to the relevant background checks, and remain in good standing until the application was approved in order to study, work, or participate in a mathematical activity held in another country.  On rare occasion, some senior university administrator may have had to contact a high-ranking government official to approve some particularly complicated application, but for the most part one could work through normal channels in order to ensure for instance that the majority of participants of a conference could actually be physically present at that conference, or that an excellent mathematician hired by unanimous consent by a mathematics department could in fact legally work in that department.

With the recent and highly publicised executive order on immigration, many of these fundamental assumptions have been seriously damaged, if not destroyed altogether.  Even if the order was withdrawn immediately, there is no longer an assurance, even for nationals not initially impacted by that order, that some similar abrupt and major change in the rules for entry to the United States could not occur, for instance for a visitor who has already gone through the lengthy visa application process and background checks, secured the appropriate visa, and is already in flight to the country.  This is already affecting upcoming or ongoing mathematical conferences or programs in the US, with many international speakers (including those from countries not directly affected by the order) now cancelling their visit, either in protest or in concern about their ability to freely enter and leave the country.  Even some conferences outside the US are affected, as some mathematicians currently in the US with a valid visa or even permanent residency are uncertain if they could ever return back to their place of work if they left the country to attend a meeting.  In the slightly longer term, it is likely that the ability of elite US institutions to attract the best students and faculty will be seriously impacted.  Again, the losses would be strongest regarding candidates that were nationals of the countries affected by the current executive order, but I fear that many other mathematicians from other countries would now be much more concerned about entering and living in the US than they would have previously.

It is still possible for this sort of long-term damage to the mathematical community (both within the US and abroad) to be reversed or at least contained, but at present there is a real risk of the damage becoming permanent.  To prevent this, it seems insufficient for me for the current order to be rescinded, as desirable as that would be; some further legislative or judicial action would be needed to begin restoring enough trust in the stability of the US immigration and visa system that the international travel that is so necessary to modern mathematical research becomes “just” a bureaucratic headache again.

Of course, the impact of this executive order is far, far broader than just its effect on mathematicians and mathematical research.  But there are countless other venues on the internet and elsewhere to discuss these other aspects (or politics in general).  (For instance, discussion of the qualifications, or lack thereof, of the current US president can be carried out at this previous post.) I would therefore like to open this post to readers to discuss the effects or potential effects of this order on the mathematical community; I particularly encourage mathematicians who have been personally affected by this order to share their experiences.  As per the rules of the blog, I request that “the discussions are kept constructive, polite, and at least tangentially relevant to the topic at hand”.

Some relevant links (please feel free to suggest more, either through comments or by email):

I just learned (from Emmanuel Kowalski’s blog) that the AMS has just started a repository of open-access mathematics lecture notes.  There are only a few such sets of notes there at present, but hopefully it will grow in the future; I just submitted some old lecture notes of mine from an undergraduate linear algebra course I taught in 2002 (with some updating of format and fixing of various typos).


[Update, Dec 22: my own notes are now on the repository.]

[This guest post is authored by Caroline Series.]

The Chern Medal is a relatively new prize, awarded once every four years jointly by the IMU
and the Chern Medal Foundation (CMF) to an individual whose accomplishments warrant
the highest level of recognition for outstanding achievements in the field of mathematics.
Funded by the CMF, the Medalist receives a cash prize of US$ 250,000.  In addition, each
Medalist may nominate one or more organizations to receive funding totalling US$ 250,000, for the support of research, education, or other outreach programs in the field of mathematics.

Professor Chern devoted his life to mathematics, both in active research and education, and in nurturing the field whenever the opportunity arose. He obtained fundamental results in all the major aspects of modern geometry and founded the area of global differential geometry. Chern exhibited keen aesthetic tastes in his selection of problems, and the breadth of his work deepened the connections of geometry with different areas of mathematics. He was also generous during his lifetime in his personal support of the field.

Nominations should be sent to the Prize Committee Chair:  Caroline Series, email: by 31st December 2016. Further details and nomination guidelines for this and the other IMU prizes can be found at


Next week, I will be teaching Math 246A, the first course in the three-quarter graduate complex analysis sequence.  This first course covers much of the same ground as an honours undergraduate complex analysis course, in particular focusing on the basic properties of holomorphic functions such as the Cauchy and residue theorems, the classification of singularities, and the maximum principle, but there will be more of an emphasis on rigour, generalisation and abstraction, and connections with other parts of mathematics.  If time permits I may also cover topics such as factorisation theorems, harmonic functions, conformal mapping, and/or applications to analytic number theory.  The main text I will be using for this course is Stein-Shakarchi (with Ahlfors as a secondary text), but as usual I will also be writing notes for the course on this blog.

In logic, there is a subtle but important distinction between the concept of mutual knowledge – information that everyone (or almost everyone) knows – and common knowledge, which is not only knowledge that (almost) everyone knows, but something that (almost) everyone knows that everyone else knows (and that everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows, and so forth).  A classic example arises from Hans Christian Andersens’ fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes: the fact that the emperor in fact has no clothes is mutual knowledge, but not common knowledge, because everyone (save, eventually, for a small child) is refusing to acknowledge the emperor’s nakedness, thus perpetuating the charade that the emperor is actually wearing some incredibly expensive and special clothing that is only visible to a select few.  My own personal favourite example of the distinction comes from the blue-eyed islander puzzle, discussed previously here, here and here on the blog.  (By the way, I would ask that any commentary about that puzzle be directed to those blog posts, rather than to the current one.)

I believe that there is now a real-life instance of this situation in the US presidential election, regarding the following

Proposition 1.  The presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is not even remotely qualified to carry out the duties of the presidency of the United States of America.

Proposition 1 is a statement which I think is approaching the level of mutual knowledge amongst the US population (and probably a large proportion of people following US politics overseas): even many of Trump’s nominal supporters secretly suspect that this proposition is true, even if they are hesitant to say it out loud.  And there have been many prominent people, from both major parties, that have made the case for Proposition 1: for instance Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, did so back in March, and just a few days ago Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee this year, did so in this speech:

I highly recommend watching the entirety of the (35 mins or so) speech, followed by the entirety of Trump’s rebuttal.

However, even if Proposition 1 is approaching the status of “mutual knowledge”, it does not yet seem to be close to the status of “common knowledge”: one may secretly believe that Trump cannot be considered as a serious candidate for the US presidency, but must continue to entertain this possibility, because they feel that others around them, or in politics or the media, appear to be doing so.  To reconcile these views can require taking on some implausible hypotheses that are not otherwise supported by any evidence, such as the hypothesis that Trump’s displays of policy ignorance, pettiness, and other clearly unpresidential behaviour are merely “for show”, and that behind this facade there is actually a competent and qualified presidential candidate; much like the emperor’s new clothes, this alleged competence is supposedly only visible to a select few.  And so the charade continues.

I feel that it is time for the charade to end: Trump is unfit to be president, and everybody knows it.  But more people need to say so, openly.

Important note: I anticipate there will be any number of “tu quoque” responses, asserting for instance that Hillary Clinton is also unfit to be the US president.  I personally do not believe that to be the case (and certainly not to the extent that Trump exhibits), but in any event such an assertion has no logical bearing on the qualification of Trump for the presidency.  As such, any comments that are purely of this “tu quoque” nature, and which do not directly address the validity or epistemological status of Proposition 1, will be deleted as off-topic.  However, there is a legitimate case to be made that there is a fundamental weakness in the current mechanics of the US presidential election, particularly with the “first-past-the-post” voting system, in that (once the presidential primaries are concluded) a voter in the presidential election is effectively limited to choosing between just two viable choices, one from each of the two major parties, or else refusing to vote or making a largely symbolic protest vote. This weakness is particularly evident when at least one of these two major choices is demonstrably unfit for office, as per Proposition 1.  I think there is a serious case for debating the possibility of major electoral reform in the US (I am particularly partial to the Instant Runoff Voting system, used for instance in my home country of Australia, which allows for meaningful votes to third parties), and I would consider such a debate to be on-topic for this post.  But this is very much a longer term issue, as there is absolutely no chance that any such reform would be implemented by the time of the US elections in November (particularly given that any significant reform would almost certainly require, at minimum, a constitutional amendment).


Over the last few years, a large group of mathematicians have been developing an online database to systematically collect the known facts, numerical data, and algorithms concerning some of the most central types of objects in modern number theory, namely the L-functions associated to various number fields, curves, and modular forms, as well as further data about these modular forms.  This of course includes the most famous examples of L-functions and modular forms respectively, namely the Riemann zeta function \zeta(s) and the discriminant modular form \Delta(q), but there are countless other examples of both. The connections between these classes of objects lie at the heart of the Langlands programme.

As of today, the “L-functions and modular forms database” is now out of beta, and open to the public; at present the database is mostly geared towards specialists in computational number theory, but will hopefully develop into a more broadly useful resource as time develops.  An article by John Cremona summarising the purpose of the database can be found here.

(Thanks to Andrew Sutherland and Kiran Kedlaya for the information.)

The International Mathematical Union (with the assistance of the Friends of the International Mathematical Union and The World Academy of Sciences, and supported by Ian Agol, Simon Donaldson, Maxim Kontsevich, Jacob Lurie, Richard Taylor, and myself) has just launched the Graduate Breakout Fellowships, which will offer highly qualified students from developing countries a full scholarship to study for a PhD in mathematics at an institution that is also located in a developing country.  Nominations for this fellowship (which should be from a sponsoring mathematician, preferably a mentor of the nominee) have just opened (with an application deadline of June 22); details on the nomination process and eligibility requirements can be found at this page.

Nominations for the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in mathematics and the New Horizons Prizes in mathematics are now open.  In 2016, the Breakthrough Prize was awarded to Ian Agol.  The New Horizons prizes are for breakthroughs given by junior mathematicians, usually restricted to within 10 years of PhD; the 2016 prizes were awarded to Andre Neves, Larry Guth, and Peter Scholze (declined).

The rules for the prizes are listed on this page, and nominations can be made at this page.  (No self-nominations are allowed, for the obvious reasons; also, a third-party letter of recommendation is also required.)

Just a quick post to note that the arXiv overlay journal Discrete Analysis, managed by Timothy Gowers, has now gone live with its permanent (and quite modern looking) web site, which is run using the Scholastica platform, as well as the first half-dozen or so accepted papers (including one of my own).  See Tim’s announcement for more details.  I am one of the editors of this journal (and am already handling a few submissions). Needless to say, we are happy to take in more submissions (though they will have to be peer reviewed if they are to be accepted, of course).