Arithmetic topology in Quanta

Consider subscribing to the feed of the mathematics section of Quantamagazine.

The articles there are invariably of high quality and quite informative.

Their latest is Secret Link Uncovered Between Pure Math and Physics by Kevin Hartnett.

It features the work by number-theorist Minhyong Kim of Oxford University.



In it, Minhyong Kim comes out of the closet, revealing that many of his results on rational points of algebraic curves were inspired by analogies he sees between number theory and physics.

So far he refrained from mentioning this inspiration in papers because “Number theorists are a pretty tough-minded group of people,” he said.

Yesterday, Peter Woit had a post on this on his blog ‘Not Even Wrong’, stuffed with interesting links to recent talks and papers by Minhyong Kim.

Minhyong Kim’s ideas grew out the topic of arithmetic topology, that is, the analogy between number rings and $3$-dimensional compact manifolds and between their prime ideals and embedded knots.

In this analogy, which is based on the similarity between finite connected covers of manifolds on the one hand and connected etale extensions of rings on the other, the prime spectrum of $\mathbb{Z}$ should correspond (due to Minkowski’s result on discriminants and Perelman’s proof of the Poincare-conjecture) to the $3$-sphere $S^3$.

I’ve written more about this analogy here:

Mazur’s knotty dictionary.

What is the knot associated to a prime?

Who dreamed up the knots=primes analogy?

The birthday of the primes=knots analogy.

And probably I’ll mention it later this month when I give a couple of talks at the $\mathbb{F}_1$-seminar in Ghent.

Mathematics in times of internet

A few weeks more of (heavy) teaching ahead, and then I finally hope to start on a project, slumbering for way too long: to write a book for a broader audience.

Prepping for this I try to read most of the popular math-books hitting the market.

The latest two explore how the internet changed the way we discuss, learn and do mathematics. Think Math-Blogs, MathOverflow and Polymath.

‘Gina says’, Adventures in the Blogosphere String War



The ‘string wars’ started with the publication of the books by Peter Woit:

Not even wrong: the failure of string theory and the search for unity in physical law

and Lee Smolin:

The trouble with physics: the rise of string theory, the fall of a science, and what comes next.

In the summer of 2006, Gil Kalai got himself an extra gmail acount, invented the fictitious ‘Gina’ and started commenting (some would argue trolling) on blogs such as Peter Woit’s own Not Even Wring, John Baez and Co.’s the n-Category Cafe and Clifford Johnson’s Asymptotia.

Gil then copy-pasted Gina’s comments, and the replies they provoked, into a leaflet and put it on his own blog in June 2009: “Gina says”, Adventures in the Blogosphere String War.

Back then, it was fun to waste an afternoon re-reading all of this, and I wrote about it here:

Now here’s an idea (June 2009)

Gina says, continued (August 2009)

With only minor editing, and including some drawings by Gil’s daughter, these leaflets have now resurfaced as a book…?!

After more than 10 years I had hoped that Gil would have taken this test-case to say some smart things about the math-blogging scene and its potential to attract more people to mathematics, or whatever.

In 2009 I wrote:

“Having read the first 20 odd pages in full and skimmed the rest, two remarks : (1) it shouldn’t be too difficult to borrow this idea and make a much better book out of it and (2) it raises the question about copyrights on blog-comments…”

Closing the gap: the quest to understand prime numbers



I can hear you sigh, but no, this is not yet another prime number book.

In May 2013, Yitang Zhang startled the mathematical world by proving that there are infinitely many prime pairs, each no more than 70.000.000 apart.

Perhaps a small step towards the twin prime conjecture but it was the first time someone put a bound on this prime gap.

Vicky Neal‘s book tells the story of closing this gap. In less than a year the bound of 70.000.000 was brought down to 246.

If you’ve read all popular prime books, there are a handful of places in the book where you might sigh: ‘oh no, not that story again’, but by far the larger part of the book explains exciting results on prime number progressions, not found anywhere else.

Want to know about sieve methods?

Which results made Tim Gowers or Terry Tao famous?

What is Szemeredi’s theorem or the Hardy-Littlewood circle method?

Ever heard about the Elliot-Halberstam or the Erdos-Turan conjecture? The work by Tao on Erdos discrepancy problem or that of James Maynard (and Tao) on closing the prime gap?

Closing the gap is the book to read about all of this.

But it is much more.

It tells about the origins and successes of the Polymath project, and details the progress made by Polymath8 on closing the gap, it gives an insight into how mathematics is done, what role conferences, talks and research institutes a la Oberwolfach play, and more.

Looking for a gift for that niece of yours interested in maths? Look no further. Closing the gap is a great book!

The latest on Mochizuki

Once in every six months there’s a flurry of online excitement about Mochizuki’s alleged proof of the abc-conjecture.

It seems to be that time of the year again.

The twitter-account of the ever optimistic @math_jin is probably the best source for (positive) news about IUT/ABC. He now announces the latest version of Yamashita’s ‘summary’ of Mochizuki’s proof:

Another informed source is Ed Frenkel. He sometimes uses his twitter-account @edfrenkel to broadcast Ivan Fesenko‘s enthusiasm.

Googling further, I stumbled upon an older (newspaper) article on the subject: das grosse ABC by Marlene Weiss, for which she got silver at the 2017 science journalism awards.

In case you prefer an English translation: The big ABC.

Here’s her opening paragraph:

“In a children’s story written by the Swiss author Peter Bichsel, a lonely man decides to invent his own language. He calls the table “carpet”, the chair “alarm clock”, the bed “picture”. At first he is enthusiastic about his idea and always thinks of new words, his sentences sound original and funny. But after a while, he begins to forget the old words.”

The article is less optimistic than other recent popular accounts of Mochizuki’s story, including:

Monumental proof to torment mathematicians for years to come in Nature by Davide Castelvecchi.

Hope Rekindled for Perplexing Proof in Quanta-magazine by Kevin Hartnett.

Baffling ABC maths proof now has impenetrable 300-page ‘summary’ in the New Scientist by Timothy Revell.

Marlene Weiss fears a sad ending:

“Table is called “carpet”, chair is called “alarm clock”, bed is called “picture”. In the story by Peter Bichsel, the lonely man ends up having so much trouble communicating with other people that he speaks only to himself. It is a very sad story.”

Perhaps things will turn out for the better, and we’ll hear about it sometime.

In six months, I’d say…

The joys of running a WordPress blog

Earlier today, John Duncan (of moonshine fame) emailed he was unable to post a comment to the previous post:
“I went to post a comment but somehow couldn’t convince the website to cooperate.”

There’s little point in maintaining a self-hosted blog if people cannot comment on it. If you tried, you got this scary message:

Catchable fatal error: Object of class WP_Error could not be converted to string in /wp-includes/formatting.php on line 1031

The days I meddled with wordpress core php-files are long gone, and a quick Google search didn’t come up with anything helpful.

In despair, there’s always the database to consider.

Here’s a screenshot of this blog’s database in phpMyAdmin:

No surprise you cannot comment here, there isn’t even a wp_comments table in the database! (though surprisingly, there’s a table wp_commentmeta…)

Two weeks ago I moved this blog to a new iMac. Perhaps the database got corrupted in the process, or the quick export option of phpMyAdmin doesn’t include comments (unlikely), or whatever.

Here’s what I did to get things working again. It may solve your problem if you don’t have a backup of another wordpress-blog with a functional wp_comments table.

1. Set up a new WordPress blog in the usual way, including a new database, let’s call it ‘newblog’.

2. In phpMyAdmin drop all tables in newblog except for wp_comments.

3. Export your blog’s database, say ‘oldblog’, via the ‘quick export’ option in phpMyAdmin to get a file oldblog.sql.

4. If this file is small you can use phpMyAdmin to import it into newblog. If not you need to do it with this terminal-command

mysql -h localhost -u root – p newblog < oldblog.sql

and have the patience for this to finish.

5. Change in your wp-config file the oldblog database to newblog.

Happy commenting!