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G+ recovery 6 : math-history

In April my Google+ account will disappear. Here I collect some G+ posts, in chronological order, having a common theme. Today, math-history (jokes and puns included).

September 20th, 2011

Was looking up pictures of mathematicians from the past and couldn’t help thinking ‘Hey, I’ve seen this face before…’

Leopold Kronecker = DSK (2/7/2019 : DSK = Dominique Strauss-Kahn)

Adolf Hurwitz = Groucho Marx

June 2nd, 2012

The ‘Noether boys’

(Noether-Knaben in German) were the group of (then) young algebra students around Emmy Noether in the early 1930’s. Actually two of them were girls (Grete Hermann and Olga Taussky).

The picture is taken from a talk Peter Roquette gave in Heidelberg. Slides of this talk are now available from his website.

In 1931 Jacques Herbrand (one of the ‘Noether boys’) fell to his death while mountain-climbing in the Massif des Écrins (France). He was just 23, but already considered one of the greatest minds of his generation.

He introduced the notion of recursive functions while proving “On the consistency of arithmetic”. In several texts on Herbrand one finds this intriguing quote by Chevalley (one of the first generation Bourbakis):

“Jacques Herbrand would have hated Bourbaki” said French mathematician Claude Chevalley quoted in Michèle Chouchan “Nicolas Bourbaki Faits et légendes” Edition du choix, 1995. («Jacques Herbrand aurait détesté Bourbaki» in the original French version).

Can anyone tell me the underlying story?

June 26th, 2012

a 3yr old post on Scottish vs. Platonic Solids did hit Reddit/pics

1.4k upvotes. Surreal!

I’d better point them to the latest on this then.

Scottish solids, final(?) comments.

The return of the Scottish solids

December 19th, 2012

Mumford’s treasure map

+Pieter Belmans (re)discovered a proto-drawing of Mumford’s iconic map of Spec(Z[x]) in his ‘red book’.

The proto-pic is taken from Mumford’s ‘Lectures on curves on an algebraic surface’ p.28 and tries to depict the integral projective line. The set-up is rather classical (focussing on points of different codimension) whereas the red-book picture is more daring and has been an inspiration for generations of arithmetical geometers.

Still there’s the issue of dating these maps.

Mumford himself dates the P^1 drawing 1964 (although the publication date is 66) and the red-book as 1967. 

Though I’d love to hear more precise dates, I’m convinced they are about right. In the ‘Curves’-book’s preface Mumford apologises to ‘any reader who, hoping that he would find here in these 60 odd pages an easy and concise introduction to schemes, instead becomes hopelessly lost in a maze of unproven assertions and undeveloped suggestions.’ and he stresses by underlining ‘From lecture 12 on, we have proven everything that we need’.

So, clearly the RedBook was written later, and as he has written in-between his master-piece GIT i’d say Mumford’s own dating is about right.

Still, it is not a completely vacuous dispute as the ‘Curves’ book (supposedly from 1964 or earlier) contains a marvelous appendix by George Bergman on the Witt ring which would predate Cartier’s account…

Thanks to +James Borger i know of George’s take on this

“I was a graduate student taking the course Mumford gave on curves and surfaces; but algebraic geometry was not my main field, and soon into the course I was completely lost.  Then Mumford started a self-contained topic that he was going to weave in — ring schemes — and it made clear and beautiful sense to me; and when he constructed the Witt vector ring scheme, I thought about it, saw a nicer way to do it, talked with him about it and with his permission presented it to the class, and eventually wrote it up as a chapter in his course notes.
I think that my main substantive contribution was the tying together of the various prime-specific ring schemes into one big ring scheme that works for all primes.  The development in terms of power series may or may not have originated with me; I just don’t remember.”

which sounds very Bergmannian to me.

Anyway I’d love to know more about the dating of the ‘Curves’ book and (even more) the first year Mumford delivered his Red-Book-Lectures (my guess 1965-66). Thanks.
Pieter maintains an “Atlas of this picture” here

June 17th, 2013

the birthday of schemes : november 5th 1956

The wikipedia-entry linking Andre Martineau to the origin of the scheme-concept appears to rely on footnote 29 of Cartier’s ‘A mad day’s work, from Grothendieck to Connes and Kontsevich’ which reads:

“Serre first considered the set of maximal ideals of a commutative ring A subject to certain restrictions. Martineau then remarked to him that his arguments remained valid for any commutative ring, provided one takes all prime ideals instead of only maximal ideals. I then proposed a definition of schemes equivalent to the definition of Grothendieck. In my dissertation I confined myself to a framework similar to that of Chevalley, so as to avoid an excessively long exposition of the preliminaries!”

In the 1956/57 Chevalley seminar Cartier gave the first two talks and in the first one, on november 5th 1956, one finds the first published use of the word ‘scheme’, which he refers to as ‘schemes in the sense of Chevalley-Nagata’. On page 9 of that talk he introduces the prime spectrum with its Zariski topology.

In the second talk a week later, on november 12th, he then gives the general definition of a scheme (as we know it, by gluing together affine schemes and including the stalks).

BUT, he did all of this ‘only’ for affine rings over a field, ‘to avoid an excessively long exposition of the preliminaries’…

Grothendieck then made the quantum-leap to general commutative rings.

June 18th, 2013

Correction : scheme-birthday = december 12th, 1955

Claude Chevalley gave already two talks on ‘Schemes’ in the Cartan-Chevalley seminar of 1955/56, the first one on december 12th 1955, the other a week later.

Chevalley only considers integral schemes, of finite type over a field (Cartier drops the integrality condition on november 5th 1956, a bit later Grothendieck will drop all restrictions).

Grothendieck’s quote “But then, what are schemes?” uttered in a Parisian Cafe must date from that period. Possibly Cartier explained the concept to him. In a letter to Serre, dated december 15th 1955, Grothendieck is quite impressed with Cartier:

“Cartier seems to be an amazing person, especially his speed of understanding, and the incredible amount of things he reads and grasps; I really have the impression that in a few years he will be where you are now. I am exploiting him most profitably.”

June 18th, 2013

David Mumford on the Italian school of Geometry

Short version:
Castelnuovo : the good
Severi : the bad
Enriques : the ugly

The longer version:

“The best known case is the Italian school of algebraic geometry, which produced extremely good and deep results for some 50 years, but then went to pieces.
There are 3 key names here — Castelnuovo, Enriques and Severi.

C was earliest and was totally rigorous, a splendid mathematician.

E came next and, as far as I know, never published anything that was false, though he openly acknowledged that some of his proofs didn’t cover every possible case (there were often special highly singular cases which later turned out to be central to understanding a situation).  He used to talk about posing “critical doubts”. He had his own standards and was happy to reexamine a “proof” and make it more nearly complete.

Unfortunately Severi, the last in the line, a fascist with a dictatorial temperament, really killed the whole school because, although he started off with brilliant and correct discoveries, later published books full of garbage (this was in the 30’s and 40’s). The rest of the world was uncertain what had been proven and what not. He gave a keynote speech at the first Int Congress after the war in 1950, but his mistakes were becoming clearer and clearer.

It took the efforts of 2 great men, Zariski and Weil, to clean up the mess in the 40’s and 50’s although dredging this morass for its correct results continues occasionally to this day.” (David Mumford)

June 19th, 2014

Hirune Mendebaldeko – Bourbaki’s muse

After more than 70 years, credit is finally given to a fine, inspiring and courageous Basque algebraic geometer.

One of the better held secrets, known only to the first generation Bourbakistas, was released to the general public in april 2012 at the WAGS Spring 2012, the Western Algebraic Geometry Symposium, held at the University of Washington.

Hirune Mendebaldeko was a Basque pacifist, a contemporary of Nicholas Bourbaki, whom she met in Paris while there studying algebraic geometry. They were rumored to be carrying on a secret affair, with not infrequent trysts in the Pyrenees. Whenever they appeared together in public, however, there was no indication of any personal relationship.

From the comments, by +Sandor Kovacs:

+Chris Brav Chris, just between us: the whole thing is a joke. I just tried to put yet another twist on it. Also, until now we have never admitted that it is, so please don’t tell anyone. 😉

The explanation at the end of +lieven lebruyn’s blog post was indeed the original motivation for the name. We were starting a new “named” lecture series as part of WAGS and wanted to name it after someone not obvious. Basque is a language not related to any other. It seemed a good idea to use that, so very few people would know the meaning of any particular word.

Then we tried all the words in WAGS, but the other three were actually very similar to the English/etc versions. The first name was chosen by vibe. Then we decided that we needed a bio for our distinguished namesake and the connection to Bourbaki presented itself for various reasons that you can guess. But we wanted a pacifist and it seemed a nice contrast to Bourbaki. So Hirune was born and we were hoping that one day she would gain prominence in the world. Finally, it happened. 🙂

June 22nd, 2014

the state of European mathematics in 1927

This map, from the Rockefeller foundation, gives us the top 3 mathematical institutes in 1927 : Goettingen, Paris and … Rome.
The pie-charts per university show that algebra was a marginal topic then (wondering how a similar map might look today).

December 1st, 2015

Did Chevalley invent the Zariski topology?

In his inaugural lecture at #ToposIHES Pierre Cartier stated (around 44m11s):
“By the way, Zariski topology, as we know it today, was not what Zariski invented. He invented a variant of that, a topology on the set of all valuation rings of a given field, which is not exactly the same thing. As for the Zariski topology, the rumour is that it was invented by Chevalley in a seminar given by Zariski, but I have no real proof.”
Do you know more about this?

Btw. the full lecture of Cartier (mostly on sheaf theory) is not on the IHES YouTube channel, but on the channel of +Laurence Honnorat.

The IHES did begin to upload videos of the remaining plenary talks
here (so far, the wednesday talks are available).

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G+ recovery 2 : Grothendieck

My Google+ account is going away on April 2, 2019, so i’ll try to rescue here some posts, in chronological order and around one theme. Here’s Grothendieck-stuff, part two.

March 18th, 2014

crowd-funding Grothendiecks biography?  

+John Baez has a post out at the n-cat-cafe on Leila Schneps’s quest to raise $6000 to translate Scharlau’s 3-volume biography of Grothendieck.

If you care to contribute : go here.

Lots of good stuff in volume 3 on Groths hippy/eco/weirdo years. I’ve plundered Scharlau’s text last year trying to pinpoint the location of Groths hideout in the French Pyrenees.

As far as i know, part 2 (the most interesting part on Groths mathematical years) is still under construction and will be compiled by the jolly group called the “Grothendieck circle”.

There’s a nice series of G-recollections out here (a.o. by Illusie, Karoubi, Cartier, Raynaud, Mumford, Hartshorne, Murre, Oort, Manin, Cartier).

I’m pretty sure Groth himself would prefer we’d try to get his Recoltes et Semailles translated into English, or La Clef des Songes.

November 18th, 2014

Grothendieck’s last hideout

The past ten days I’ve been up in the French mountains (without internet access), not that far from the Ariege, so I’m just now catching up with all (blog)posts related to Grothendieck’s death.

At our place, the morning of thursday november 13th was glorious!

Even though FranceInter kept telling horror stories about flooding in more southern departements, I can only hope that Grothendieck passed away in that morning sun.
About a year ago, on the occasion of Groth’s 85th birthday, I ran a series of posts on places where he used to live, ending with his last known hideout

At the time I didn’t include the precise location of his house, but now that pictures of it are in the French press I feel free to suggest (if you are interested to know where Grothendieck spend his later years) to point your Google-earth or Google-maps (in streetview!) to:
lat 43.068254  lon 1.169080

November 18th, 2014

Mormoiron and Lasserre acknowledge Grothendieck

In the series of post on Grothendieck-places I wrote a year ago (see here and links at the end) I tried to convince these French villages to update their Wikipedia page to acknowledge the existence of Grothendieck under the heading ‘Personnalités liées à la commune’, without much success.

Today it is nice to see that Lasserre added Grothendieck to their page:

“Alexandre Grothendieck (1928-2014), considéré comme un des plus grands mathématiciens du xxe siècle, y a vécu en quasi-ermite de 1990 à sa mort.”

Also Mormoiron, where Grothendieck lived in the 80ties (see picture below) has updated its page:

“Alexandre Grothendieck a habité temporairement à Mormoiron (“Les Aumettes”)”

French villages who still have to follow suit:

November 19th, 2014

Please keep an eye on the GrothendieckCircle for updates

+Leila Schneps invested a lot of time over the years setting up the Grothendieck Circle website.

Some material had to be removed a few years ago as per Groth’s request.

I’m sure many of you will be as thrilled as I was to get this message from Leila:

“I have already started modifying the Grothendieck circle website and it will of course eventually return completely.  Plus many things will be added, as we will now have access to Grothendieck’s correspondence and many other papers.”

Leila already began to update the site, for example there’s this new page on Groth’s life in Lasserre.

I understand Leila is traveling to Lasserre tomorrow, presumably for Grothendieck’s funeral. Hopefully she will eventually post something about it on the GrothendieckCircle (or, why not here on G+).

December 4th, 2014

Nicolas Bourbaki is temporarily resurrected to announce the death of Grothendieck in the French newspaper Le Monde.

You may recall that Bourbaki passed away on november 11th 1968, see +Peter Luschny’s post on his death announcement.

December 6th, 2014

The ‘avis de décès’ released by Grothendieck’s family and friends, published in the local French newspaper ‘La Depeche’, on saturday november 15th.

It announces Grothendieck’s cremation, on november 17th at 11.30h in the village of Pamiers, bordering the ‘Camp du Vernet’, where Grothendieck’s father Sasha was imprisoned, before being deported to Auschwitz and murdered by the Nazis in 1942. 

June 12th, 2015

Grothendieck’s later writings  

Next week there’s a Grothendieck conference at Montpellier. George Maltsiniotis will give a talk thursday afternoon with the  exciting title “Grothendieck’s manuscripts in Lasserre” (hat tip +Pieter Belmans ).

You may recall that G’s last hideout was in the Pyrenean village of Lasserre.

After a bit of sleuthing around I’ve heard some great news.

Grothendieck’s family have donated all of his later writings (apart from his correspondences and other family-related stuff) to the Bibliotheque Nationale. The BNF have expressed their intention of scanning all this material (thousands of pages it seems) and making them (eventually) available online!

Rumour has it that the donation consists of 41 large folders containing G’s reflections, kept in the form of a diary (a bit like ‘Clef des Songes’), on G’s usual suspects (evil, Satan, the cosmos), but 2 or 3 of these folders contain mathematics (of sorts).

Probably, Maltsiniotis will give a preview on this material. To anyone lucky enough to be able to go down south next week and to attend his talk, please keep me in the loop…

June 19th, 2015

Maltsiniotis’ talk on Grothendieck’s Lasserre-gribouillis

Yesterday, George Maltsiniotis gave a talk at the Gothendieck conference in Montpellier with title “Grothendieck’s manuscripts in Lasserre”.

This morning, +David Roberts  asked for more information on its content, and earlier i gave a short reply on what i learned, but perhaps this matter deserves a more careful write-up.

+Damien Calaque  attended George’s talk and all info below is based on his recollections. Damien stresses that he didn’t take notes so there might be minor errors in the titles and order of the parts mentioned below.

EDIT: based on info i got from +Pieter Belmans  in the comments below (followed up by the picture he got via +Adeel Khan  taken by Edouard Balzin) i’ve corrected the order and added additional info.

The talk was videotaped and should become public soon.

As i mentioned last week Grothendieck’s family has handed over all non-family related material to the Bibliotheque Nationale. Two days ago, Le Monde wrote that the legacy consists of some 50.000 pages.

Maltsiniotis insisted that the BNF wants to make these notes available to the academic community, after they made an inventory (which may take some time).

I guess from the blackboard-picture i got from Pieter, the person responsible at the BNF is Isabelle le Masme de Chermont.

The Lasserre-griboillis themselves consists of 5 parts:

1. Géométrie élémentaire schématique. (August 1992)
This is about quadratic forms and seems to be really elementary.

2. Structure de la psyché. (12/10/1992-28/09/1993) 3600 pages
This one is about some combinatorics of oriented graphs with extra-structure (part of the structure are successor and predecessor operators on the set of arrows).

3. Psyché et structures (26/03/93-20/06/93) 700 pages
This one is non-mathematical.

4. Maxwell equations.
Maltsiniotis mentioned that he was surprised to see that there was at best one mathematics book in G’s home, but plenty of physics books.

5. Le problème du mal. (1993-1998) 
This one is huge (30.000 pages) and is non-mathematical.

Note that also the Mormoiron-gribouillis will be made public by the University of Montpellier, or if you prefer video.

Finally, is the photo below what you think it is? Yep!

January 20th, 2016

where are the videos of the Grothendieck conference?

Mid june 2015 a conference “Mathematics of the 21st century: the vision of Alexander Grothendieck” was held in Montpellier. In a comment to a post here on Maltsiniotis’ talk i mentioned that most of the talks were video-taped and that they would soon be made public.

When they failed to surface on the Montpellier website, i asked +Damien Calaque  for more information. Some months ago Damien told me the strange (and worrying) tale of their fate.

At that moment Damien was in a process of trying to recover the videos. Two weeks ago he told me things were looking good, so i now feel free to post about it.

Michael Wright is the head of the Archive for Mathematical Sciences & Philosophy. He arranged with the organizers of the conference that he would send someone over to video-tape the lectures and that he would make them available on his Archive. He also promised to send a copy of the videos to Montpellier, but he never did. Nor did the tapes appear on his site.

Damien Calague emailed Wright asking for more information and eventually got a reply. It appears that Wright will not be able to edit the videos nor put them online in a reasonable time.

They agreed that Damien would send him a large capacity USB-drive. Wright would copy the videos on it and send it back. Damien will arrange for the videos to be edited and the University of Montpellier will put them online. Hopefully everything will work out smoothly.

So please keep an eye on the website of l’Institut Montpelliérain Alexander Grothendieck

May 6th, 2017

Grothendieck’s Montpellier notes will hit the net May 10th

At last there is an agreement between the university at Montpellier and Grothendieck’s children to release the ‘Montpellier gribouillis’ (about 28000 pages will hit the net soon).
Another 65000 pages, found at Lasserre after Grothendieck’s death, might one day end up at the IHES or the Bibliotheque Nationale.
If you are interested in the history of Grothendieck’s notes, there is this old post on my blog.

(h/t Theo Raedschelders for the Liberation link)

May 11th, 2017

Buy a Grothendieck painting to get the Lasserre notes online!

As of yesterday, most of Grothendieck’s Montpellier notes are freely available at this site.

There’s much to say about the presentation (eg. It is not possible to link directly to a given page/article, it is scanned at only 400 dpi etc. etc.) but hey, here they are at last, for everyone to study.

By far the most colourful (in my first browsing of the archive) is cote No. 154, on ‘systeme de pseudo-droites’. You can download it in full (a mere 173 Mb).

As you know, the Montpellier notes are only a fraction of the material Grothendieck left behind. By far the largest (though probably not the most interesting, mathematically) are the Lasserre notes, which to the best of my knowledge are in the care of a Parisian bookseller.

Here’s an idea:
almost every page of No. 154 (written on ancient computer-output) looks like a painting. No doubt, most math departments in the world would love to acquire one framed page of it. Perhaps this can raise enough money to safeguard the Lasserre notes…

July 13th, 2017

le Tour de France in Grothendieck’s backyard

If you want to see the scenery Grothendieck enjoyed in his later years, watch the Tour de France tomorrow.

It starts in Saint-Girons where he went to the weekly market (and died in hospital, november 13th 2014), ending in Foix with 3 category 1 climbs along the way (familiar to anyone familiar with Julia Stagg’s expat-lit set at ‘Fogas’ or you can read my own post on Fogas).

It will not pass through Lasserre (where G spend the final 20 years of his life) which is just to the north of Saint-Girons.

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G+ recovery 1 : Grothendieck

My Google+ account is going away on April 2, 2019, and all attempts to automatically backup my G+ posts seem to fail so far. So i’ll try to rescue here some of them, in chronological order and around one theme. Today, Grothendieck-stuff, part one.

May 30th, 2013

Recordings of a 1972 talk by Grothendieck at Cern “Réflexions sur la science- responsabilité du savant”.
If you don’t have time to listen to all 138 minutes, try to grab from part1 the fragment 29:10 – 30:40 on “the strange ritual of inviting experts to give a talk on some esoteric subject for an audience of 50 to 100 people, one or two of whom will perhaps be able to painfully understand a few bits and pieces, and all others find themselves in a position of humiliation, as they gave in to social pressure to be there, even though the topic itself didn’t interest them at all” (poor translation on my part)
These recordings are illustrative for Grothendieck’s talks in his ‘Survivre’ period, early 70ties. 
(h/t Matilde Marcolli on FB)

June 8th, 2013

Grothendieck’s christmas tree

In the pdf-version of “Recoltes et Semailles” Grothendieck writes on page 463 in the Yin-Yang chapter:

“j’ai fini par aboutir à un diagramme, vaguement en forme d’arbre de Noël”

Here’s the actual diagram, from the original typescript of “Les portes sur l’univers”, the appendix to the ‘Clef du Yin et du Yang’.

Sadly, this appendix (and the many drawings contained in it) didn’t make it into the pdf-release of RecS…

June 9th, 2013

Grothendieck’s yin-yang sunflower

Grothendieck’s ‘Les Portes sur l’Univers’ (Gateways to the Universe(?)) is a truly fascinating text, containing several mysterious drawings (and even a bit of icosahedral-math towards the end).

On PU46, he draws the sunflower of yin and yang, having 12 leafs (he claims, corresponding to 12 yin-terms on the inner circle, 12 yang-terms on the outer circle, as well as to the 12 signs of the zodiac…).

He continues: “On l’appellera, au choix, l’accordeon cosmique, ou l’harmonica cosmique, ou (pour mettre tout le monde d’accord) l’harmonium cosmique”.
(One might call it, as one prefers, the cosmic accordion, or the cosmic harmonica, or (in order to seek general consensus) the *cosmic harmony*).

June 10th, 2013

Grothendieck’s icosahedral theorem

On april 12th 1986, Grothendieck decides to add a mathematical annexe to his esoteric text ‘Les portes sur l’univers’. 

“Par contre, c’est peu pour mon ardeur de mathématicien, laquelle s’est a nouveau réveillée ces jours derniers – et voila repartie ma réflexion sur l’icosaèdre, cet amour mathématique de mon âge mur! Je vais donc peut-être rajouter a ces notes quelques compléments sur la combinatoire de l’icosaèdre et sur la géométrie des ensembles a six éléments…”

He starts with a set S of 6 elements (the vertices), any pair of elements is an edge and any triple a triangle. He then calls a set of triangles F an *icosahedral structure* provided every edge is contained in exactly two triangles in F.

His main result is that all such icosahedral structures are isomorphic (and has exactly 60 isomorphisms), an icosahedral structure consist of exactly 10 triangles and a choice of triangle determines the structure uniquely. Moreover, there are exactly 12 different such octahedral structures and there is an involution on this set coming from ‘complementary’ structures.

At a first glance, Grothendieck’s result appears to be closely related to one of the surprises in finite group theory: the outer automorphism of the symmetric group on 6 letters.

For more on this and related mathematical mysteries of the octahedron, try:

+John Baez  ‘Some Thoughts on the Number 6’  

+Noah Snyder  ‘The Outer Automorphism of S_6’

my own ‘Klein’s dessins d’enfant and the buckyball’

December 18th, 2013

for Grothendieck aficionados

a chance discovery last month en route from Les Vans – Lablachere (in the Ardeche region), a ‘ferronnerie d’art’ (a wrought-iron workshop) called ‘La Clef des Songes’.

All 315 pages of this Grothendieck meditation from 1987 can be found here.

The 691 pages of ‘Notes pour la clef des songes’ are a bit harder to get. Fortunately, the mysterious website ‘l’astree’ offers them as a series of 23 pdfs here. Enjoy the read!

January 3rd, 2014

Why did Grothendieck quit mathematics?

After yesterday’s post on the striking similarities between the lives of Grothendieck and JD Salinger it sure felt weird to stumble upon this footnote in “La Clef des Songes”  

Probably I’m reading way too much into it, but it appears to indicate that Grothendieck stopped doing mathematics to become … a writer!

April 23rd, 2014

Grothendieck documentary available on DVD

+catherine aira and Yves Le Pestipon made a 90 minute long documentary “Alexander Grothendieck, sur les routes d’un genie” which had successful showings in universities, at the Novela science festival, on Toulouse television, and elsewhere. It will be shown in Nantes, Toulouse, Montpellier, and Montreal.

Yves Le Pestipon is one of the people behind the mysterious website which has (among many other things) posts on Grothendieck containing hints to his present whereabouts…

Here are some YouTube clips:


Here’s the tumblr page of the project:

All of us who cannot attend the viewings can still order the DVD for 25 Euros (20 Euros in France) by sending an email to

A new release of the DVD, containing English subtitles, will be available soon.

Thanks to +Adeel Khan Yusufzai +David Roberts and +catherine aira 

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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!

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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!

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