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 Orange.fr 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.

a wintry chataigneraie

It took us some time to clear the array of old chestnut trees.

But it paid off. A good harvest easily gives half a ton of chestnuts, including some rare, older varieties.

In the autumn, the coloured leaves make a spectacular view. Now it looks rather desolate.

But, the wind piles up the fallen leaves in every nook, cranny, corner or entrance possible.

My day in the mountains: ‘harvesting’ fallen leaves…

Brancusi’s advice : avoid vampires

My one and only resolution for 2018: ban vampires from my life!

Here’s the story.

In the 1920’s, Montparnasse was at the heart of the intellectual and artistic life in Paris because studios and cafés were inexpensive.

Artists including Picasso, Matisse, Zadkine, Modigliani, Dali, Chagall, Miro, and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi all lived there.

You’ll find many photographs of Picasso in the company of others (here center, with Modigliani and Salmon), but … not with Brancusi.

From A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (Vol 3) by John Richardson:

“Brancusi disapproved of one of of Picasso’s fundamental characteristics—one that was all too familiar to the latter’s fellow artists and friends—his habit of making off not so much with their ideas as with their energy. “Picasso is a cannibal,” Brancusi said. He had a point. After a pleasurable day in Picasso’s company, those present were apt to end up suffering from collective nervous exhaustion. Picasso had made off with their energy and would go off to his studio and spend all night living off it. Brancusi hailed from vampire country and knew about such things, and he was not going to have his energy or the fruits of his energy appropriated by Picasso.”

I learned this story via Austin Kleon who made this video about it:


Show Your Work! Episode 1: Vampires from Austin Kleon on Vimeo.

Stirring a cup of coffee

Please allow for a couple of end-of-semester bluesy ramblings. I just finished grading the final test of the last of five courses I lectured this semester.

Most of them went, I believe, rather well.

As always, it was fun to teach an introductory group theory course to second year physics students.

Personally, I did enjoy our Lie theory course the most, given for a mixed public of both mathematics and physics students. We did the spin-group $SU(2)$ and its connection with $SO_3(\mathbb{R})$ in gruesome detail, introduced the other classical groups, and proved complete reducibility of representations. The funnier part was applying this to the $U(1) \times SU(2) \times SU(3)$-representation of the standard model and its extension to the $SU(5)$ GUT.

Ok, but with a sad undertone, was the second year course on representations of finite groups. Sad, because it was the last time I’m allowed to teach it. My younger colleagues decided there’s no place for RT on the new curriculum.

Soit.

The final lecture is often an eye-opener, or at least, I hope it is/was.

Here’s the idea: someone whispers in your ear that there might be a simple group of order $60$. Armed with only the Sylow-theorems and what we did in this course we will determine all its conjugacy classes, its full character table, and finish proving that this mysterious group is none other than $A_5$.

Right now I’m just a tad disappointed only a handful of students came close to solving the same problem for order $168$ this afternoon.

Clearly, I gave them ample extra information: the group only has elements of order $1,2,3,4$ and $7$ and the centralizer of one order $2$ element is the dihedral group of order $8$. They had to determine the number of distinct irreducible representations, that is, the number of conjugacy classes. Try it yourself (Solution at the end of this post).

For months I felt completely deflated on Tuesday nights, for I had to teach the remaining two courses on that day.

There’s this first year Linear Algebra course. After teaching for over 30 years it was a first timer for me, and probably for the better. I guess 15 years ago I would have been arrogant enough to insist that the only way to teach linear algebra properly was to do representations of quivers…

Now, I realise that linear algebra is perhaps the only algebra course the majority of math-students will need in their further career, so it is best to tune its contents to the desires of the other colleagues: inproducts, determinants as volumes, Markov-processes and the like.

There are thousands of linear algebra textbooks, the one feature they all seem to lack is conciseness. What kept me going throughout this course was trying to come up with the shortest proofs ever for standard results. No doubt, next year the course will grow on me.

Then, there was a master course on algebraic geometry (which was supposed to be on scheme theory, moduli problems such as the classification of fat points (as in the car crash post, etale topology and the like) which had a bumpy start because class was less prepared on varieties and morphisms than I had hoped for.

Still, judging on the quality of the papers students are beginning to hand in (today I received one doing serious stuff with stacks) we managed to cover a lot of material in the end.

I’m determined to teach that first course on algebraic geometry myself next year.

Which brought me wondering about the ideal content of such a course.

Half a decade ago I wrote a couple of posts such as Mumford’s treasure map, Grothendieck’s functor of points, Manin’s geometric axis and the like, which are still quite readable.

In the functor of points-post I referred to a comment thread Algebraic geometry without prime ideals at the Secret Blogging Seminar.

As I had to oversee a test this afternoon, I printed out all comments (a full 29 pages!) and had a good time reading them. At the time I favoured the POV advocated by David Ben-Zvi and Jim Borger (functor of points instead of locally ringed schemes).

Clearly they are right, but then so was I when I thought the ‘right’ way to teach linear algebra was via quiver-representations…

We’ll see what I’ll try out next year.

You may have wondered about the title of this post. It’s derived from a paper Raf Bocklandt (of the Korteweg-de Vries Institute in Amsterdam) arXived some days ago: Reflections in a cup of coffee, which is an extended version of a Brouwer-lecture he gave. Raf has this to say about the Brouwer fixed-point theorem.

“The theorem is usually explained in worldly terms by looking at a cup of coffee. In this setting it states that no matter how you stir your cup, there will always be a point in the liquid that did not change position and if you try to move that part by further stirring you will inevitably move some other part back into its original position. Legend even has it that Brouwer came up with the idea while stirring in a real cup, but whether this is true we’ll never know. What is true however is that Brouwers refections on the topic had a profound impact on mathematics and would lead to lots of new developments in geometry.”

I wish you all a pleasant end of 2016 and a much better 2017.

As to the 168-solution: Sylow says there are 8 7-Sylows giving 48 elements of order 7. The centralizer of each of them must be $C_7$ (given the restriction on the order of elements) so two conjugacy classes of them. Similarly each conjugacy class of an order 3 element must contain 56 elements. There is one conjugacy class of an order 2 element having 21 elements (because the centralizer is $D_4$) giving also a conjugacy class of an order 4 element consisting of 42 elements. Together with the identity these add up to 168 so there are 6 irreducible representations.

NaNoWriMo (3)

In 2001, Eugenia Cheng gave an interesting after-dinner talk Mathematics and Lego: the untold story. In it she compared math research to fooling around with lego. A quote:

“Lego: the universal toy. Enjoyed by people of all ages all over the place. The idea is simple and brilliant. Start with some basic blocks that can be joined together. Add creativity, imagination and a bit of ingenuity. Build anything.

Mathematics is exactly the same. We start with some basic building blocks and ways of joining them together. And then we use creativity, and, yes, imagination and certainly ingenuity, and try to build anything.”

She then goes on to explain category theory, higher dimensional topology, and the process of generalisation in mathematics, whole the time using lego as an analogy. But, she doesn’t get into the mathematics of lego, perhaps because the talk was aimed at students and researchers of all levels and all disciplines.

There are plenty of sites promoting lego in the teaching of elementary mathematics, here’s just one link-list-page: “27 Fantastic LEGO Math Learning Activities for All Ages”. I’m afraid ‘all ages’ here means: under 10…

lego-math-teaching-children-alycia-zimmerman-fb__700-png

Can one do better?

Everyone knows how to play with lego, which shapes you can build, and which shapes are simply impossible.

Can one tap into this subconscious geometric understanding to explain more advanced ideas such as symmetry, topological spaces, sheaves, categories, perhaps even topos theory… ?

Let’s continue our

[section_title text=”imaginary iterview”]

Question: What will be the opening scene of your book?

Alice posts a question on Lego-stackexchenge. She wants help to get hold of all imaginary lego shapes, including shapes impossible to construct in three-dimensional space, such as gluing two shapes over some internal common sub-shape, or Escher like constructions, and so on.

escherlego

Question: And does she get help?

At first she only gets snide remarks, style: “brush off your French and wade through SGA4”.

Then, she’s advised to buy a large notebook and jot down whatever she can tell about shapes that one can construct.

If you think about this, you’ll soon figure out that you can only add new bricks along the upper or lower bricks of the shape. You may call these the boundary of the shape, and soon you’ll be doing topology, and forming coproducts.

These ‘legal’ lego shapes form what some of us would call a category, with a morphism from $A$ to $B$ for each different way one can embed shape $A$ into $B$.

Of course, one shouldn’t use this terminology, but rather speak of different instruction-manuals to get $B$ out of $A$ (the morphisms), stapling two sets of instructions together (the compositions), and the empty instruction-sheet (the identity morphism).

Question: But can one get to the essence of categorical results in this way?

Take Yoneda’s lemma. In the case of lego shapes it says that you know a shape once you know all morphisms into it from whatever shape.

For any coloured brick you’re given the number of ways this brick sits in that shape, so you know all the shape’s bricks. Then you may try for combination of two bricks, and so on. It sure looks like you’re going to be able to reconstruct the shape from all this info, but this quickly get rather messy.

But then, someone tells you the key argument in Yoneda’s proof: you only have to look for the shape to which the identity morphism is assigned. Bingo!

Question: Wasn’t your Alice interested in the ‘illegal’ or imaginary shapes?

Once you get to Yoneda, the rest follows routinely. You define presheaves on this category, figure out that you get a whole bunch of undesirable things, bring in Grothendieck topologies to be the policing agency weeding out that mess, and keep only the sheaves, which are exactly the desired imaginary shapes.

Question: Your book’s title is ‘Primes and other imaginary shapes’. How do you get from Lego shapes to prime numbers?

By the standard Gödelian trick: assign a prime number to each primitive coloured brick, and to a shape the product of the brick-primes.

That number is a sort of code of the shape. Shapes sharing the same code are made up from the same set of bricks.

Take the set of all strictly positive natural numbers partially ordered by divisibility, then this code is a functor from Lego shapes to numbers. If we extend this to imaginary shapes, we’ll rapidly end up at Connes’ arithmetic site, supernatural numbers, adeles and the recent realisation that the set of all prime numbers does have a geometric shape, but one with infinitely many dimensions.

primenumbers

Not sure yet how to include all of this, but hey, early days.

Question: So, shall we continue this interview at a later date?

No way, I’d better start writing.