Archangel Gabriel will make you a topos

No kidding, this is the final sentence of Le spectre d’Atacama, the second novel by Alain Connes (written with Danye Chéreau (IRL Mrs. AC) and his former Ph.D. advisor Jacques Dixmier).

The book has a promising start. Armand Lafforet (IRL AC) is summoned by his friend Rodrigo to the Chilean observatory Alma in the Altacama desert. They have observed a mysterious spectrum, and need his advice.

Armand drops everything and on the flight he lectures the lady sitting next to him on proofs by induction (breaking up chocolate bars), and recalls a recent stay at the La Trappe Abbey, where he had an encounter with (the ghost of) Alexander Grothendieck, who urged him to ‘Follow the motif!’.

“Comment était-il arrivé là? Il possédait surement quelques clés. Pourquoi pas celles des songes?” (How did he get
there? Surely he owned some keys, why not those of our dreams?)

A few pages further there’s this on the notion of topos (my attempt to translate):

“The notion of space plays a central role in mathematics. Traditionally we represent it as a set of points, together with a notion of neighborhood that we call a ‘topology’. The universe of these new spaces, ‘toposes’, unveiled by Grothendieck, is marvellous, not only for the infinite wealth of examples (it contains, apart from the ordinary topological spaces, also numerous instances of a more combinatorial nature) but because of the totally original way to perceive space: instead of appearing on the main stage from the start, it hides backstage and manifests itself as a ‘deus ex machina’, introducing a variability in the theory of sets.”

So far, so good.

We have a mystery, tidbits of mathematics, and allusions left there to put a smile on any Grothendieck-aficionado’s face.

But then, upon arrival, the story drops dead.

Rodrigo has been taken to hospital, and will remain incommunicado until well in the final quarter of the book.

As the remaining astronomers show little interest in Alain’s (sorry, Armand’s) first lecture, he decides to skip the second, and departs on a hike to the ocean. There, he takes a genuine sailing ship in true Jules Verne style to the lighthouse at he end of the world.

All this drags on for at least half a year in time, and two thirds of the book’s length. We are left in complete suspense when it comes to the mysterious Atacama spectrum.

Perhaps the three authors deliberately want to break with existing conventions of story telling?

I had a similar feeling when reading their first novel Le Theatre Quantique. Here they spend some effort to flesh out their heroine, Charlotte, in the first part of the book. But then, all of a sudden, their main character is replaced by a detective, and next by a computer.

Anyway, when Armand finally reappears at the IHES the story picks up pace.

The trio (Armand, his would-be-lover Charlotte, and Ali Ravi, Cern’s computer guru) convince CERN to sell its main computer to an American billionaire with the (fake) promise of developing a quantum computer. Incidentally, they somehow manage to do this using Charlotte’s history with that computer (for this, you have to read ‘Le Theatre Quantique’).

By their quantum-computing power (Shor and quantum-encryption pass the revue) they are able to decipher the Atacame spectrum (something to do with primes and zeroes of the zeta function), send coded messages using quantum entanglement, end up in the Oval Office and convince the president to send a message to the ‘Riemann sphere’ (another fun pun), and so on, and on.

The book ends with a twist of the classic tale of the mathematician willing to sell his soul to the devil for a (dis)proof of the Riemann hypothesis:

After spending some time in purgatory, the mathematician gets a meeting with God and asks her the question “Is the Riemann hypothesis true?”.

“Of course”, God says.

“But how can you know that all non-trivial zeroes of the zeta function have real part 1/2?”, Armand asks.

And God replies:

“Simple enough, I can see them all at once. But then, don’t forget I’m God. I can see the disappointment in your face, yes I can read in your heart that you are frustrated, that you desire an explanation…

Well, we’re going to fix this. I will call archangel Gabriel, the angel of geometry, he will make you a topos!”

If you feel like running to the nearest Kindle store to buy “Le spectre d’Atacama”, make sure to opt for a package deal. It is impossible to make heads or tails of the story without reading “Le theatre quantique” first.

But then, there are worse ways to spend an idle week than by binge reading Connes…

Edit (February 28th). A short video of Alain Connes explaining ‘Le spectre d’Atacama’ (in French)

Rarer books: Singmaster’s notes

David Singmaster‘s “Notes on Rubik’s magic cube” are a collectors item, but it is still possible to buy a copy. I own a fifth edition (august 1980).

These notes capture the Rubik craze of those years really well.

Here’s a Conway story, from Siobhan Roberts’ excellent biography Genius at Play.

The ICM in Helsinki in 1978 was Conway’s last shot to get the Fields medal, but this was the last thing on his mind. He just wanted a Rubik cube (then, iron-curtain times, only sold in Hungary), so he kept chasing Hungarians at the meeting, hoping to obtain one. Siobhan writes (p. 239):

“The Fields Medals went to Pierre Deligne, Charles Fefferman, Grigory Margulis, and Daniel Quillen. The Rubik’s cube went to Conway.”

After his Notes, David Singmaster produced a follow-up newsletter “The Cubic Circular”. Only 5 magazines were published, of which 3 were double issues, between the Autumn of 1981 and the summer of 1985.

These magazines were reproduced on this page.

taking stock

The one thing harder than to start blogging after a long period of silence is to stop when you think you’re still in the flow.

(image credit Putnam Consulting)

The Januari 1st post a math(arty) 2018 was an accident. I only wanted to share this picture, of a garage-door with an uncommon definition of prime numbers, i saw the night before.

I had been working on a better understanding of Conway’s Big Picture so I had material for a few follow-up posts.

It was never my intention to start blogging on a daily basis.

I had other writing plans for 2018.

For years I’m trying to write a math-book for a larger audience, or at least to give it an honest try.

My pet peeve with such books is that most of them are either devoid of proper mathematical content, or focus too much on the personal lives of the mathematicians involved.

An inspiring counter-example is ‘Closing the gap’ by Vicky Neal.

From the excellent review by Colin Beveridge on the Aperiodical Blog:

“Here’s a clever way to structure a maths book (I have taken copious notes): follow the development of a difficult idea or discovery chronologically, but intersperse the action with background that puts the discovery in context. That’s not a new structure – but it’s tricky to pull off: you have to keep the difficult idea from getting too difficult, and keep the background at a level where an interested reader can follow along and either say “yes, that’s plausible” or better “wait, let me get a pen!”. This is where Closing The Gap excels.”

So it is possible to publish a math-book worth writing. Or at least, some people can pull it off.

Problem was I needed to kick myself into writing mode. Feeling forced to post something daily wouldn’t hurt.

Anyway, I was sure this would have to stop soon. I had plans to disappear for 10 days into the French mountains. Our place there suffers from frequent power- and cellphone-cuts, which can last for days.

Thank you for upgrading your network to the remotest of places. At times, it felt like I was working from home.

I kept on blogging.

Even now, there’s material lying around.

I’d love to understand the claim that non-commutative geometry may offer some help in explaining moonshine. There was an interesting question on an older post on nimber-arithmetic I feel I should be following up. I’ve given a couple of talks recently on $\mathbb{F}_1$-material, parts of which may be postable. And so on.

Problem is, I would stick to the same (rather dense) writing style.

Perhaps it would make more sense to aim for a weekly (or even monthly) post over at Medium.

Medium offers no MathJax support forcing me to write differently about maths, and for a broader potential audience.

I may continue to blog here (or not), stick to the current style (or try something differently). I have not the foggiest idea right now.

If you have suggestions or advice, please leave a comment or email me.

Knights and Knaves, the Heyting way

(image credit: Joe Blitzstein via Twitter)

Smullyan’s Knights and Knaves problems are classics. On an island all inhabitants are either Knights (who only tell true things) and Knaves (who always lie). You have to determine their nature from a few statements. Here’s a very simple problem:

“Abercrombie met just two inhabitants, A and B. A made the following statement: “Both of us are Knaves.” What is A and what is B?”

Now, this one is simple enough to solve, but for more complicated problems a generic way to solve the puzzles is to use propositional calculas, as explained in Smullyan’s Logical Labyrinths”, chapter 8 “Liars, truth-tellers and propositional logic’.

If an inhabitants $A$ asserts a proposition $P$, and if $k_A$ is the assertion ‘$A$ is a Knight’, then the statement can be rephrased as

k_A \Leftrightarrow P \]

for if $A$ is a Knight, $P$ must be true and if $A$ is a Knave $P$ must be false.

Usually, one can express $P$ as a propositional statement involving $k_A,k_B,k_C,\dots$.
The example above can be rephrased as

k_A \Leftrightarrow (\neg k_A \wedge \neg k_B) \]

Assigning truth values to $k_A$ and $k_B$ and setting up the truth-table for this sentence, one sees that the only possibility for this to be true is that $k_A$ equals $0$ and $k_B$ equals $1$. So, $A$ is a Knave and $B$ is a Knight.

Clearly, one only requires this approach for far more difficult problems.

In almost all Smullyan puzzles, the only truth values are $0$ and $1$. There’s a short excursion to Boolean algebras (sorry, Boolean islands) in chapter 9 ‘Variable Liars’ in Logical Labyrinths. But then, the type of problems are about finding equivalent notions of Boolean algebras, rather that generalised Knights&Knaves puzzles.

Did anyone pursue the idea of Smullyanesque puzzles with truth values in a proper Heyting algebra?

I only found one blog-post on this: Non-Classical Knights and Knaves by Jason Rosenhouse.

He considers three valued logic (the Heyting algebra corresponding to the poset 0-N-1, and logical connectives as in the example on the Wiki-page on Heyting algebras.

On his island the natives cycle, repeatedly and unpredictably, between the two states. They are knights for a while, then they enter a transitional phase during which they are partly knight and partly knave, and then they emerge on the other side as knaves.

“If Joe is in the transitional phase, and you say, “Joe is a knight,” or “Joe is a knave,” what truth value should we assign to your statement? Since Joe is partly knight and partly knave, neither of the classical truth values seems appropriate. So we shall assign a third truth value, “N” to such statements. Think of N as standing for “neutral” or “neither true nor false.” On the island, vague statements are assigned the truth value N.

Just to be clear, it’s not just any statement that can be assigned the truth value N. It is only vague statements that receive that truth value, and for now our only examples of such statements are attributions of knight-hood and knave-hood to people in the transitional phase.

For the natives, entering the transitional phase implied a disconcerting loss of identity. Uncertain of how to behave, they hedged their bets by only making statements with truth value N. People in the transitional phase were referred to as neutrals. So there are now three kinds of people: Knights, who only make true statements; Knaves, who only make false statements; and Neutrals, who only make statements with the truth value N.”

He gives one example of a possible problem:

“Suppose you meet three people, named Dave, Evan and Ford. They make the following statements:

Dave: Evan is a knight.
Evan: Ford is a knave.
Ford: Dave is a neutral.

Can you determine the types of all three people?”

If you know of more of these Smullanesque problems using Heyting algebras, please leave a comment.

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!