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I have just learned that Jean Bourgain passed away last week in Belgium, aged 64, after a prolonged battle with cancer. He and Eli Stein were the two mathematicians who most influenced my early career; it is something of a shock to find out that they are now both gone, having died within a few days of each other.

Like Eli, Jean remained highly active mathematically, even after his cancer diagnosis. Here is a video profile of him by National Geographic, on the occasion of his 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, doing a surprisingly good job of describing in lay terms the sort of mathematical work he did:

When I was a graduate student in Princeton, Tom Wolff came and gave a course on recent progress on the restriction and Kakeya conjectures, starting from the breakthrough work of Jean Bourgain in a now famous 1991 paper in Geom. Func. Anal.. I struggled with that paper for many months; it was by far the most difficult paper I had to read as a graduate student, as Jean would focus on the most essential components of an argument, treating more secondary details (such as rigorously formalising the uncertainty principle) in very brief sentences. This image of my own annotated photocopy of this article may help convey some of the frustration I had when first going through it:

Eventually, though, and with the help of Eli Stein and Tom Wolff, I managed to decode the steps which had mystified me – and my impression of the paper reversed completely. I began to realise that Jean had a certain collection of tools, heuristics, and principles that he regarded as “basic”, such as dyadic decomposition and the uncertainty principle, and by working “modulo” these tools (that is, by regarding any step consisting solely of application of these tools as trivial), one could proceed much more rapidly and efficiently. By reading through Jean’s papers, I was able to add these tools to my own “basic” toolkit, which then became a fundamental starting point for much of my own research. Indeed, a large fraction of my early work could be summarised as “take one of Jean’s papers, understand the techniques used there, and try to improve upon the final results a bit”. In time, I started looking forward to reading the latest paper of Jean. I remember being particularly impressed by his 1999 JAMS paper on global solutions of the energy-critical nonlinear Schrodinger equation for spherically symmetric data. It’s hard to describe (especially in lay terms) the experience of reading through (and finally absorbing) the sections of this paper one by one; the best analogy I can come up with would be watching an expert video game player nimbly navigate his or her way through increasingly difficult levels of some video game, with the end of each level (or section) culminating in a fight with a huge “boss” that was eventually dispatched using an array of special weapons that the player happened to have at hand. (I would eventually end up spending two years with four other coauthors trying to remove that spherical symmetry assumption; we did finally succeed, but it was and still is one of the most difficult projects I have been involved in.)

While I was a graduate student at Princeton, Jean worked at the Institute for Advanced Study which was just a mile away. But I never actually had the courage to set up an appointment with him (which, back then, would be more likely done in person or by phone rather than by email). I remember once actually walking to the Institute and standing outside his office door, wondering if I dared knock on it to introduce myself. (In the end I lost my nerve and walked back to the University.)

I think eventually Tom Wolff introduced the two of us to each other during one of Jean’s visits to Tom at Caltech (though I had previously seen Jean give a number of lectures at various places). I had heard that in his younger years Jean had quite the competitive streak; however, when I met him, he was extremely generous with his ideas, and he had a way of condensing even the most difficult arguments to a few extremely information-dense sentences that captured the essence of the matter, which I invariably found to be particularly insightful (once I had finally managed to understand it). He still retained a certain amount of cocky self-confidence though. I remember posing to him (some time in early 2002, I think) a problem Tom Wolff had once shared with me about trying to prove what is now known as a sum-product estimate for subsets of a finite field of prime order, and telling him that Nets Katz and I would be able to use this estimate for several applications to Kakeya-type problems. His initial reaction was to say that this estimate should easily follow from a Fourier analytic method, and promised me a proof the following morning. The next day he came up to me and admitted that the problem was more interesting than he had initially expected, and that he would continue to think about it. That was all I heard from him for several months; but one day I received a two-page fax from Jean with a beautiful hand-written proof of the sum-product estimate, which eventually became our joint paper with Nets on the subject (and the only paper I ended up writing with Jean). Sadly, the actual fax itself has been lost despite several attempts from various parties to retrieve a copy, but a LaTeX version of the fax, typed up by Jean’s tireless assistant Elly Gustafsson, can be seen here.

About three years ago, Jean was diagnosed with cancer and began a fairly aggressive treatment. Nevertheless he remained extraordinarily productive mathematically, authoring over thirty papers in the last three years, including such breakthrough results as his solution of the Vinogradov conjecture with Guth and Demeter, or his short note on the Schrodinger maximal function and his paper with Mirek, Stein, and Wróbel on dimension-free estimates for the Hardy-Littlewood maximal function, both of which made progress on problems that had been stuck for over a decade. In May of 2016 I helped organise, and then attended, a conference at the IAS celebrating Jean’s work and impact; by then Jean was not able to easily travel to attend, but he gave a superb special lecture, not announced on the original schedule, via videoconference that was certainly one of the highlights of the meeting. (UPDATE: a video of his talk is available here. Thanks to Brad Rodgers for the link.)

I last met Jean in person in November of 2016, at the award ceremony for his Breakthrough Prize, though we had some email and phone conversations after that date. Here he is with me and Richard Taylor at that event (demonstrating, among other things, that he wears a tuxedo much better than I do):

Jean was a truly remarkable person and mathematician. Certainly the world of analysis is poorer with his passing.

[UPDATE, Dec 31: Here is the initial IAS obituary notice for Jean.]

[UPDATE, Jan 3: See also this MathOverflow question “Jean Bourgain’s Relatively Lesser Known Significant Contributions”.]

I was deeply saddened to learn that Elias Stein died yesterday, aged 87.

I have talked about some of Eli’s older mathematical work in these blog posts. He continued to be quite active mathematically in recent years, for instance finishing six papers (with various co-authors including Jean Bourgain, Mariusz Mirek, Błażej Wróbel, and Pavel Zorin-Kranich) in just this year alone. I last met him at Wrocław, Poland last September for a conference in his honour; he was in good health (and good spirits) then. Here is a picture of Eli together with several of his students (including myself) who were at that meeting (taken from the conference web site):

Eli was an amazingly effective advisor; throughout my graduate studies I think he never had fewer than five graduate students, and there was often a line outside his door when he was meeting with students such as myself. (The Mathematics Geneaology Project lists 52 students of Eli, but if anything this is an under-estimate.) My weekly meetings with Eli would tend to go something like this: I would report on all the many different things I had tried over the past week, without much success, to solve my current research problem; Eli would listen patiently to everything I said, concentrate for a moment, and then go over to his filing cabinet and fish out a preprint to hand to me, saying “I think the authors in this paper encountered similar problems and resolved it using Method X”. I would then go back to my office and read the preprint, and indeed they had faced something similar and I could often adapt the techniques there to resolve my immediate obstacles (only to encounter further ones for the next week, but that’s the way research tends to go, especially as a graduate student). Amongst other things, these meetings impressed upon me the value of mathematical experience, by being able to make more key progress on a problem in a handful of minutes than I was able to accomplish in a whole week. (There is a well known story about the famous engineer Charles Steinmetz fixing a broken piece of machinery by making a chalk mark; my meetings with Eli often had a similar feel to them.)

Eli’s lectures were always masterpieces of clarity. In one hour, he would set up a theorem, motivate it, explain the strategy, and execute it flawlessly; even after twenty years of teaching my own classes, I have yet to figure out his secret of somehow always being able to arrive at the natural finale of a mathematical presentation at the end of each hour without having to improvise at least a little bit halfway during the lecture. The clear and self-contained nature of his lectures (and his many books) were a large reason why I decided to specialise as a graduate student in harmonic analysis (though I would eventually return to other interests, such as analytic number theory, many years after my graduate studies).

Looking back at my time with Eli, I now realise that he was extraordinarily patient and understanding with the brash and naive teenager he had to meet with every week. A key turning point in my own career came after my oral qualifying exams, in which I very nearly failed due to my overconfidence and lack of preparation, particularly in my chosen specialty of harmonic analysis. After the exam, he sat down with me and told me, as gently and diplomatically as possible, that my performance was a disappointment, and that I seriously needed to solidify my mathematical knowledge. This turned out to be exactly what I needed to hear; I got motivated to actually work properly so as not to disappoint my advisor again.

So many of us in the field of harmonic analysis were connected to Eli in one way or another; the field always felt to me like a large extended family, with Eli as one of the patriarchs. He will be greatly missed.

[UPDATE: Here is Princeton’s obituary for Elias Stein.]

I am totally stunned to learn that Maryam Mirzakhani died ~~today~~ yesterday, aged 40, after a severe recurrence of the cancer she had been fighting for several years. I had planned to email her some wishes for a speedy recovery after learning about the relapse yesterday; I still can’t fully believe that she didn’t make it.

My first encounter with Maryam was in 2010, when I was giving some lectures at Stanford – one on Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture, and another on random matrix theory. I remember a young woman sitting in the front who asked perceptive questions at the end of both talks; it was only afterwards that I learned that it was Mirzakhani. (I really wish I could remember exactly what the questions were, but I vaguely recall that she managed to put a nice dynamical systems interpretation on both of the topics of my talks.)

After she won the Fields medal in 2014 (as I posted about previously on this blog), we corresponded for a while. The Fields medal is of course one of the highest honours one can receive in mathematics, and it clearly advances one’s career enormously; but it also comes with a huge initial burst of publicity, a marked increase in the number of responsibilities to the field one is requested to take on, and a strong expectation to serve as a public role model for mathematicians. As the first female recipient of the medal, and also the first to come from Iran, Maryam was experiencing these pressures to a far greater extent than previous medallists, while also raising a small daughter and fighting off cancer. I gave her what advice I could on these matters (mostly that it was acceptable – and in fact necessary – to say “no” to the vast majority of requests one receives).

Given all this, it is remarkable how productive she still was mathematically in the last few years. Perhaps her greatest recent achievement has been her “magic wand” theorem with Alex Eskin, which is basically the analogue of the famous measure classification and orbit closure theorems of Marina Ratner, in the context of moduli spaces instead of unipotent flows on homogeneous spaces. (I discussed Ratner’s theorems in this previous post. By an unhappy coincidence, Ratner also passed away this month, aged 78.) Ratner’s theorems are fundamentally important to any problem to which a homogeneous dynamical system can be associated (for instance, a special case of that theorem shows up in my work with Ben Green and Tamar Ziegler on the inverse conjecture for the Gowers norms, and on linear equations in primes), as it gives a good description of the equidistribution of any orbit of that system (if it is unipotently generated); and it seems the Eskin-Mirzakhani result will play a similar role in problems associated instead to moduli spaces. The remarkable proof of this result – which now stands at over 200 pages, after three years of revision and updating – uses almost all of the latest techniques that had been developed for homogeneous dynamics, and ingeniously adapts them to the more difficult setting of moduli spaces, in a manner that had not been dreamed of being possible only a few years earlier.

Maryam was an amazing mathematician and also a wonderful and humble human being, who was at the peak of her powers. Today was a huge loss for Maryam’s family and friends, as well as for mathematics.

[EDIT, Jul 16: New York times obituary here.]

[EDIT, Jul 18: New Yorker memorial here.]

Klaus Roth, who made fundamental contributions to analytic number theory, died this Tuesday, aged 90.

I never met or communicated with Roth personally, but was certainly influenced by his work; he wrote relatively few papers, but they tended to have outsized impact. For instance, he was one of the key people (together with Bombieri) to work on simplifying and generalising the large sieve, taking it from the technically formidable original formulation of Linnik and Rényi to the clean and general almost orthogonality principle that we have today (discussed for instance in these lecture notes of mine). The paper of Roth that had the most impact on my own personal work was his three-page paper proving what is now known as Roth’s theorem on arithmetic progressions:

Theorem 1 (Roth’s theorem on arithmetic progressions)Let be a set of natural numbers of positive upper density (thus ). Then contains infinitely many arithmetic progressions of length three (with non-zero of course).

At the heart of Roth’s elegant argument was the following (surprising at the time) dichotomy: if had some moderately large density within some arithmetic progression , either one could use Fourier-analytic methods to detect the presence of an arithmetic progression of length three inside , or else one could locate a long subprogression of on which had increased density. Iterating this dichotomy by an argument now known as the *density increment argument*, one eventually obtains Roth’s theorem, no matter which side of the dichotomy actually holds. This argument (and the many descendants of it), based on various “dichotomies between structure and randomness”, became essential in many other results of this type, most famously perhaps in Szemerédi’s proof of his celebrated theorem on arithmetic progressions that generalised Roth’s theorem to progressions of arbitrary length. More recently, my recent work on the Chowla and Elliott conjectures that was a crucial component of the solution of the Erdös discrepancy problem, relies on an *entropy decrement argument* which was directly inspired by the density increment argument of Roth.

The Erdös discrepancy problem also is connected with another well known theorem of Roth:

Theorem 2 (Roth’s discrepancy theorem for arithmetic progressions)Let be a sequence in . Then there exists an arithmetic progression in with positive such thatfor an absolute constant .

In fact, Roth proved a stronger estimate regarding mean square discrepancy, which I am not writing down here; as with the Roth theorem in arithmetic progressions, his proof was short and Fourier-analytic in nature (although non-Fourier-analytic proofs have since been found, for instance the semidefinite programming proof of Lovasz). The exponent is known to be sharp (a result of Matousek and Spencer).

As a particular corollary of the above theorem, for an infinite sequence of signs, the sums are unbounded in . The Erdös discrepancy problem asks whether the same statement holds when is restricted to be zero. (Roth also established discrepancy theorems for other sets, such as rectangles, which will not be discussed here.)

Finally, one has to mention Roth’s most famous result, cited for instance in his Fields medal citation:

Theorem 3 (Roth’s theorem on Diophantine approximation)Let be an irrational algebraic number. Then for any there is a quantity such that

From the Dirichlet approximation theorem (or from the theory of continued fractions) we know that the exponent in the denominator cannot be reduced to or below. A classical and easy theorem of Liouville gives the claim with the exponent replaced by the degree of the algebraic number ; work of Thue and Siegel reduced this exponent, but Roth was the one who obtained the near-optimal result. An important point is that the constant is *ineffective* – it is a major open problem in Diophantine approximation to produce any bound significantly stronger than Liouville’s theorem with effective constants. This is because the proof of Roth’s theorem does not exclude any *single* rational from being close to , but instead very ingeniously shows that one cannot have *two* different rationals , that are unusually close to , even when the denominators are very different in size. (I refer to this sort of argument as a “dueling conspiracies” argument; they are strangely prevalent throughout analytic number theory.)

Lars Hörmander, who made fundamental contributions to all areas of partial differential equations, but particularly in developing the analysis of variable-coefficient linear PDE, died last Sunday, aged 81.

I unfortunately never met Hörmander personally, but of course I encountered his work all the time while working in PDE. One of his major contributions to the subject was to systematically develop the calculus of Fourier integral operators (FIOs), which are a substantial generalisation of pseudodifferential operators and which can be used to (approximately) solve linear partial differential equations, or to transform such equations into a more convenient form. Roughly speaking, Fourier integral operators are to linear PDE as canonical transformations are to Hamiltonian mechanics (and one can in fact view FIOs as a quantisation of a canonical transformation). They are a large class of transformations, for instance the Fourier transform, pseudodifferential operators, and smooth changes of the spatial variable are all examples of FIOs, and (as long as certain singular situations are avoided) the composition of two FIOs is again an FIO.

The full theory of FIOs is quite extensive, occupying the entire final volume of Hormander’s famous four-volume series “The Analysis of Linear Partial Differential Operators”. I am certainly not going to try to attempt to summarise it here, but I thought I would try to motivate how these operators arise when trying to transform functions. For simplicity we will work with functions on a Euclidean domain (although FIOs can certainly be defined on more general smooth manifolds, and there is an extension of the theory that also works on manifolds with boundary). As this will be a heuristic discussion, we will ignore all the (technical, but important) issues of smoothness or convergence with regards to the functions, integrals and limits that appear below, and be rather vague with terms such as “decaying” or “concentrated”.

A function can be viewed from many different perspectives (reflecting the variety of bases, or approximate bases, that the Hilbert space offers). Most directly, we have the *physical space perspective*, viewing as a function of the physical variable . In many cases, this function will be concentrated in some subregion of physical space. For instance, a gaussian wave packet

where , and are parameters, would be physically concentrated in the ball . Then we have the *frequency space (or momentum space) perspective*, viewing now as a function of the frequency variable . For this discussion, it will be convenient to normalise the Fourier transform using a small constant (which has the physical interpretation of Planck’s constant if one is doing quantum mechanics), thus

For instance, for the gaussian wave packet (1), one has

and so we see that is concentrated in frequency space in the ball .

However, there is a third (but less rigorous) way to view a function in , which is the *phase space perspective* in which one tries to view as distributed simultaneously in physical space and in frequency space, thus being something like a measure on the phase space . Thus, for instance, the function (1) should heuristically be concentrated on the region in phase space. Unfortunately, due to the uncertainty principle, there is no completely satisfactory way to canonically and rigorously define what the “phase space portrait” of a function should be. (For instance, the Wigner transform of can be viewed as an attempt to describe the distribution of the energy of in phase space, except that this transform can take negative or even complex values; see Folland’s book for further discussion.) Still, it is a very useful heuristic to think of functions has having a phase space portrait, which is something like a non-negative measure on phase space that captures the distribution of functions in both space and frequency, albeit with some “quantum fuzziness” that shows up whenever one tries to inspect this measure at scales of physical space and frequency space that together violate the uncertainty principle. (The score of a piece of music is a good everyday example of a phase space portrait of a function, in this case a sound wave; here, the physical space is the time axis (the horizontal dimension of the score) and the frequency space is the vertical dimension. Here, the time and frequency scales involved are well above the uncertainty principle limit (a typical note lasts many hundreds of cycles, whereas the uncertainty principle kicks in at cycles) and so there is no obstruction here to musical notation being unambiguous.) Furthermore, if one takes certain asymptotic limits, one can recover a precise notion of a phase space portrait; for instance if one takes the *semiclassical limit* then, under certain circumstances, the phase space portrait converges to a well-defined classical probability measure on phase space; closely related to this is the *high frequency limit* of a fixed function, which among other things defines the wave front set of that function, which can be viewed as another asymptotic realisation of the phase space portrait concept.

If functions in can be viewed as a sort of distribution in phase space, then linear operators should be viewed as various transformations on such distributions on phase space. For instance, a pseudodifferential operator should correspond (as a zeroth approximation) to multiplying a phase space distribution by the symbol of that operator, as discussed in this previous blog post. Note that such operators only change the amplitude of the phase space distribution, but not the support of that distribution.

Now we turn to operators that alter the support of a phase space distribution, rather than the amplitude; we will focus on unitary operators to emphasise the amplitude preservation aspect. These will eventually be key examples of Fourier integral operators. A physical translation should correspond to pushing forward the distribution by the transformation , as can be seen by comparing the physical and frequency space supports of with that of . Similarly, a frequency modulation should correspond to the transformation ; a linear change of variables , where is an invertible linear transformation, should correspond to ; and finally, the Fourier transform should correspond to the transformation .

Based on these examples, one may hope that given any diffeomorphism of phase space, one could associate some sort of unitary (or approximately unitary) operator , which (heuristically, at least) pushes the phase space portrait of a function forward by . However, there is an obstruction to doing so, which can be explained as follows. If pushes phase space portraits by , and pseudodifferential operators multiply phase space portraits by , then this suggests the intertwining relationship

and thus is approximately conjugate to :

The formalisation of this fact in the theory of Fourier integral operators is known as Egorov’s theorem, due to Yu Egorov (and not to be confused with the more widely known theorem of Dmitri Egorov in measure theory).

Applying commutators, we conclude the approximate conjugacy relationship

Now, the pseudodifferential calculus (as discussed in this previous post) tells us (heuristically, at least) that

and

where is the Poisson bracket. Comparing this with (2), we are then led to the compatibility condition

thus needs to preserve (approximately, at least) the Poisson bracket, or equivalently needs to be a symplectomorphism (again, approximately at least).

Now suppose that is a symplectomorphism. This is morally equivalent to the graph being a Lagrangian submanifold of (where we give the second copy of phase space the negative of the usual symplectic form , thus yielding as the full symplectic form on ; this is another instantiation of the closed graph theorem, as mentioned in this previous post. This graph is known as the *canonical relation* for the (putative) FIO that is associated to . To understand what it means for this graph to be Lagrangian, we coordinatise as suppose temporarily that this graph was (locally, at least) a smooth graph in the and variables, thus

for some smooth functions . A brief computation shows that the Lagrangian property of is then equivalent to the compatibility conditions

for , where denote the components of . Some Fourier analysis (or Hodge theory) lets us solve these equations as

for some smooth potential function . Thus, we have parameterised our graph as

A reasonable candidate for an operator associated to and in this fashion is the oscillatory integral operator

for some smooth amplitude function (note that the Fourier transform is the special case when and , which helps explain the genesis of the term “Fourier integral operator”). Indeed, if one computes an inner product for gaussian wave packets of the form (1) and localised in phase space near respectively, then a Taylor expansion of around , followed by a stationary phase computation, shows (again heuristically, and assuming is suitably non-degenerate) that has (3) as its canonical relation. (Furthermore, a refinement of this stationary phase calculation suggests that if is normalised to be the *half-density* , then should be approximately unitary.) As such, we view (4) as an example of a Fourier integral operator (assuming various smoothness and non-degeneracy hypotheses on the phase and amplitude which we do not detail here).

Of course, it may be the case that is not a graph in the coordinates (for instance, the key examples of translation, modulation, and dilation are not of this form), but then it is often a graph in some other pair of coordinates, such as . In that case one can compose the oscillatory integral construction given above with a Fourier transform, giving another class of FIOs of the form

This class of FIOs covers many important cases; for instance, the translation, modulation, and dilation operators considered earlier can be written in this form after some Fourier analysis. Another typical example is the half-wave propagator for some time , which can be written in the form

This corresponds to the phase space transformation , which can be viewed as the classical propagator associated to the “quantum” propagator . More generally, propagators for linear Hamiltonian partial differential equations can often be expressed (at least approximately) by Fourier integral operators corresponding to the propagator of the associated *classical* Hamiltonian flow associated to the symbol of the Hamiltonian operator ; this leads to an important mathematical formalisation of the correspondence principle between quantum mechanics and classical mechanics, that is one of the foundations of microlocal analysis and which was extensively developed in Hörmander’s work. (More recently, numerically stable versions of this theory have been developed to allow for rapid and accurate numerical solutions to various linear PDE, for instance through Emmanuel Candés’ theory of curvelets, so the theory that Hörmander built now has some quite significant practical applications in areas such as geology.)

In some cases, the canonical relation may have some singularities (such as fold singularities) which prevent it from being written as graphs in the previous senses, but the theory for defining FIOs even in these cases, and in developing their calculus, is now well established, in large part due to the foundational work of Hörmander.

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 ). 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 in 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.

A few days ago, I received the sad news that Yahya Ould Hamidoune had recently died. Hamidoune worked in additive combinatorics, and had recently solved a question on noncommutative Freiman-Kneser theorems posed by myself on this blog last year. Namely, Hamidoune showed

Theorem 1 (Noncommutative Freiman-Kneser theorem for small doubling)Let , and let be a finite non-empty subset of a multiplicative group such that for some finite set of cardinality at least , where is the product set of and . Then there exists a finite subgroup of with cardinality , such that is covered by at most right-cosets of , where depend only on .

One can of course specialise here to the case , and view this theorem as a classification of those sets of doubling constant at most .

In fact Hamidoune’s argument, which is completely elementary, gives the very nice explicit constants and , which are essentially optimal except for factors of (as can be seen by considering an arithmetic progression in an additive group). This result was also independently established (in the case) by Tom Sanders (unpublished) by a more Fourier-analytic method, in particular drawing on Sanders’ deep results on the Wiener algebra on arbitrary non-commutative groups .

This type of result had previously been known when was less than the golden ratio , as first observed by Freiman; see my previous blog post for more discussion.

Theorem 1 is not, strictly speaking, contained in Hamidoune’s paper, but can be extracted from his arguments, which share some similarity with the recent simple proof of the Ruzsa-Plünnecke inequality by Petridis (as discussed by Tim Gowers here), and this is what I would like to do below the fold. I also include (with permission) Sanders’ unpublished argument, which proceeds instead by Fourier-analytic methods. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

I am very saddened (and stunned) to learn that Oded Schramm, who made fundamental contributions to conformal geometry, probability theory, and mathematical physics, died in a hiking accident this Monday, aged 46. (I knew him as a fellow editor of the Journal of the American Mathematical Society, as well as for his mathematical research, of course.) It is a loss of both a great mathematician and a great person.

One of Schramm’s most fundamental contributions to mathematics is the introduction of the stochastic Loewner equation (now sometimes called the *Schramm-Loewner equation* in his honour), together with his subsequent development of the theory of this equation with Greg Lawler and Wendelin Werner. (This work has been recognised by a number of awards, including the Fields Medal in 2006 to Wendelin.) This equation (which I state after the jump) describes, for each choice of a parameter , a random (fractal) curve in the plane; this random curve can be viewed as a nonlinear variant of Brownian motion, although the SLE curves tend to cross themselves much less frequently than Brownian paths do. By the nature of their construction, the curves are *conformally invariant*: any conformal transformation of an curve (respecting the boundary) gives another curve which has the same distribution as the original curve. (Brownian motion is also conformally invariant; given the close connections between Brownian motion and harmonic functions, it is not surprising that this fact is closely related to the fact that the property of a function being harmonic in the plane is preserved under conformal transformations.) Conversely, one can show that any conformally invariant random curve distribution which obeys some additional regularity and locality axioms must be of the form for some .

The amazing fact is that many other natural processes for generating random curves in the plane – e.g. loop-erased random walk, the boundary of Brownian motion (also known as the “Brownian frontier”), or the limit of percolation on the triangular lattice – are known or conjectured to be distributed according to for some specific (in the above three examples, is 2, 8/3, and 6 respectively). In particular, this implies that the highly non-trivial fact that such distributions are conformally invariant, a phenomenon that had been conjectured by physicists but which only obtained rigorous mathematical proof following the work of Schramm and his coauthors.

[Update, Sep 6: A memorial blog to Oded has been set up by his Microsoft Research group here. See also these posts by Gil Kalai, Yuval Peres, and Luca Trevisan.]

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