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Category: stories

Krull & Paris

Category-Cafe ran an interesting post The history of n-categories
claiming that “mathematicians’ histories are largely
‘Royal-road-to-me’ accounts”

To my mind a key
difference is the historians’ emphasis in their histories that things
could have turned out very differently, while the mathematicians tend to
tell a story where we learn how the present has emerged out of the past,
giving the impression that things were always going to turn out not very
dissimilarly to the way they have, even if in retrospect the course was
quite tortuous.

Over the last weeks I’ve been writing up
the notes of a course on ‘Elementary Algebraic Geometry’ that I’ll
be teaching this year in Bach3. These notes are split into three
historical periods more or less corresponding to major conceptual leaps
in the subject : (1890-1920) ideals in polynomial rings (1920-1950)
intrinsic definitions using the coordinate ring (1950-1970) scheme
theory. Whereas it is clear to take Hilbert&Noether as the leading
figures of the first period and Serre&Grothendieck as those of the
last, the situation for the middle period is less clear to me. At
first I went for the widely accepted story, as for example phrased by Miles Reid in the
Final Comments to his Undergraduate Algebraic Geometry course.

rigorous foundations for algebraic geometry were laid in the 1920s and
1930s by van der Waerden, Zariski and Weil (van der Waerden’s
contribution is often suppressed, apparently because a number of
mathematicians of the immediate post-war period, including some of the
leading algebraic geometers, considered him a Nazi collaborator).

But then I read The Rising Sea: Grothendieck
on simplicity and generality I
by Colin McLarty and stumbled upon
the following paragraph

From Emmy Noether’s viewpoint,
then, it was natural to look at prime ideals instead of classical and
generic points—or, as we would more likely say today, to identify
points with prime ideals. Her associate Wolfgang Krull did this. He gave
a lecture in Paris before the Second World War on algebraic geometry
taking all prime ideals as points, and using a Zariski topology (for
which see any current textbook on algebraic geometry). He did this over
any ring, not only polynomial rings like C[x, y]. The generality was
obvious from the Noether viewpoint, since all the properties needed for
the definition are common to all rings. The expert audience laughed at
him and he abandoned the idea.

The story seems to be
due to Jurgen Neukirch’s ‘Erinnerungen an Wolfgang Krull’
published in ‘Wolfgang Krull : Gesammelte Abhandlungen’ (P.
Ribenboim, editor) but as our library does not have this book I would
welcome any additional information such as : when did Krull give this
talk in Paris? what was its precise content? did he introduce the prime
spectrum in it? and related to this : when and where did Zariski
introduce ‘his’ topology? Answers anyone?

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noncommutative Fourier transform

At the
noncommutative algebra program in MSRI 1999/2000, Mikhail Kapranov gave
an intriguing talk Noncommutative neighborhoods and noncommutative Fourier transform
and over the years I’ve watched the video of this talk a number
of times. The first part of the talk is about his work on Noncommutative geometry
based on commutator expansions
and as I’ve once worked through it
this part didn’t present problems. On the other hand, I’ve never
understood much from the second part of the talk which claims to relate
these noncommutative formal neighborhoods to _noncommutative Fourier
transforms_. The string coffee table has a post Kapranov
and Getzler on Higher Stuff
linking to two recent talks by Kapranov
on noncommutative Fourier transforms at the Streetfest. Marni
Sheppeard made handwritten notes available. I definitely should find the time
to get through them and have another go at the Kapranov-video…

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non-(commutative) geometry

that my non-geometry
is linked via the comments in this
string-coffee-table post
which in turn is available through a
trackback from the Kontsevich-Soibelman
it is perhaps useful to add a few links.

The little
I’ve learned from reading about Connes-style non-commutative geometry is
this : if you have a situation where a discrete group is acting with a
bad orbit-space (for example, $GL_2(\mathbb{Z})$ acting on the whole
complex-plane, rather than just the upper half plane) you can associate
to this a $C^*$-algebra and study invariants of it and interprete them
as topological information about this bad orbit space. An intruiging
example is the one I mentioned and where the additional noncommutative
points (coming from the orbits on the real axis) seem to contain a lot
of modular information as clarified by work of Manin&Marcolli and
Zagier. Probably the best introduction into Connes-style
non-commutative geometry
from this perspective are the Lecture on
Arithmetic Noncommutative Geometry
by Matilde Marcolli. To
algebraists : this trick is very similar to looking at the
skew-group algebra $\mathbb{C}[x_1,\ldots,x_n] * G$ if
you want to study the _orbifold_ for a finite group action on affine
space. But as algebraist we have to stick to affine varieties and
polynomials so we can only deal with the case of a finite group,
analysts can be sloppier in their functions, so they can also do
something when the group is infinite.

By the way, the
skew-group algebra idea is also why non-commutative algebraic
enters string-theory via the link with orbifolds. The
easiest (and best understood) example is that of Kleinian singularities.
The best introduction to this idea is via the Representations
of quivers, preprojective algebras and deformations of quotient
notes by Bill Crawley-Boevey.

Artin-style non-commutative geometry aka
non-commutative projective geometry originated from the
work of Artin-Tate-Van den Bergh (in the west) and Odeskii-Feigin (in
the east) to understand Sklyanin algebras associated to elliptic curves
and automorphisms via ‘geometric’ objects such as point- (and
fat-point-) modules, line-modules and the like. An excellent survey
paper on low dimensional non-commutative projective geometry is Non-commutative curves and surfaces by Toby
Stafford and
Michel Van den Bergh
. The best introduction is the (also
neverending…) book-project Non-
commutative algebraic geometry
by Paul Smith who
maintains a
noncommutative geometry and algebra resource page
page (which is
also available from the header).

started with the seminal paper ‘Algebra extensions and
nonsingularity’, J. Amer. Math. Soc. 8 (1995), 251-289 by Joachim
and Daniel Quillen but which is not available online. An
online introduction is Noncommutative smooth
by Kontsevich and Rosenberg. Surely, different people have
different motivations to study non-geometry. I assume Cuntz got
interested because inductive limits of separable algebras are quasi-free
(aka formally smooth aka qurves). Kontsevich and Soibelman want to study
morphisms and deformations of $A_{\infty}$-categories as they explain in
their recent
. My own motivation to be interested in non-geometry is the
hope that in the next decades one will discover new exciting connections
between finite groups, algebraic curves and arithmetic groups (monstrous
being the first, and still not entirely understood,
instance of this). Part of the problem is that these three topics seem
to be quite different, yet by taking group-algebras of finite or
arithmetic groups and coordinate rings of affine smooth curves they all
turn out to be quasi-free algebras, so perhaps non-geometry is the
unifying theory behind these seemingly unrelated topics.

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something to think about

This is
not going to be the post I should be writing (this morning I found out
that the last post
must have been rather cryptic as I didnt manage to get it explained to
people who should know at least half of the picture, so at the moment
Im writing out a short note giving the dictionary between the Kontsevich-Soibelman
and my
. I’m still undecided whether this will make it here, or to
the arXiv or to my dustbin…).

Instead I want to draw your
attention to one of the best posts I’ve read lately. It’s
called A man’s character is his fate and it’s from
Christine C. Dantas’ blog Christine’s Background
and clearly has a history which you may know if you
somewhat followed (some) physics blogs this week or which you may
reconstruct from this and this from her site and something else.

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an appeal to the few people working in Cuntz-Quillen-Kontsevich-whoever
noncommutative geometry (the one where smooth affine varieties
correspond to quasi-free or formally smooth algebras) : let’s rename our
topic and call it non-geometry. I didn’t come up with
this term, I heard in from Maxim Kontsevich in a talk he gave a couple
of years ago in Antwerp. There are some good reasons for this name

The term _non-commutative geometry_ is already taken by
much more popular subjects such as _Connes-style noncommutative
differential geometry_ and _Artin-style noncommutative algebraic
geometry_. Renaming our topic we no longer have to include footnotes
(such as the one in the recent Kontsevich-Soibelman
) :

We use “formal” non-commutative geometry
in tensor categories, which is different from the non-commutative
geometry in the sense of Alain Connes.

or to make a
distinction between _noncommutative geometry in the small_ (which is
Artin-style) and _noncommutative geometry in the large_ (which in
non-geometry) as in the Ginzburg notes.

Besides, the stress in _non-commutative geometry_ (both in Connes-
and Artin-style) in on _commutative_. Connes-style might also be called
‘K-theory of $C^*$-algebras’ and they use the topological
information of K-theoretic terms in the commutative case as guidance to
speak about geometrical terms in the nocommutative case. Similarly,
Artin-style might be called ‘graded homological algebra’ and they
use Serre’s homological interpretation of commutative geometry to define
similar concepts for noncommutative algebras. Hence, non-commutative
geometry is that sort of non-geometry which is almost

But the main point of naming our subject
non-geometry is to remind us not to rely too heavily on our
(commutative) geometric intuition. For example, we would expect a
manifold to have a fixed dimension. One way to define the dimension is
as the trancendence degree of the functionfield. However, from the work
of Paul Cohn (I learned about it through Aidan Schofield) we know that
quasi-free algebras usually do’nt have a specific function ring of
fractions, rather they have infinitely many good candidates for it and
these candidates may look pretty unrelated. So, at best we can define a
_local dimension_ of a noncommutative manifold at a point, say given by
a simple representation. It follows from the Cunz-Quillen tubular
neighborhood result that the local ring in such a point is of the

$M_n(\mathbb{C} \langle \langle z_1,\ldots,z_m \rangle
\rangle) $

(this s a noncommutative version of the classical fact
than the local ring in a point of a d-dimensional manifold is formal
power series $\mathbb{C} [[ z_1,\ldots,z_d ]] $) but in non-geometry both
m (the _local_ dimension) and n (the dimension of the simple
representation) vary from point to point. Still, one can attach to the
quasi-free algebra A a finite amount of data (in fact, a _finite_ quiver
and dimension vector) containing enough information to compute the (n,m)
couples for _all_ simple points (follows from the one quiver to rule them
all paper
or see this for more

In fact, one can even extend this to points
corresponding to semi-simple representations in which case one has to
replace the matrix-ring above by a ring Morita equivalent to the
completion of the path algebra of a finite quiver, the _local quiver_ at
the point (which can also be computer from the one-quiver of A. The
local coalgebras of distributions at such points of
Kontsevich&Soibelman are just the dual coalgebras of these local
algebras (in math.RA/0606241 they
merely deal with the n=1 case but no doubt the general case will appear
in the second part of their paper).

The case of the semi-simple
point illustrates another major difference between commutative geometry
and non-geometry, whereas commutative simples only have self-extensions
(so the distribution coalgebra is just the direct sum of all the local
distributions) noncommutative simples usually have plenty of
non-isomorphic simples with which they have extensions, so to get at the
global distribution coalgebra of A one cannot simply add the locals but
have to embed them in more involved coalgebras.

The way to do it
is somewhat concealed in the
third version of my neverending book
(the version that most people
found incomprehensible). Here is the idea : construct a huge uncountable
quiver by taking as its vertices the isomorphism classes of all simple
A-representations and with as many arrows between the simple vertices S
and T as the dimension of the ext-group between these simples (and
again, these dimensions follow from the knowledge of the one-quiver of
A). Then, the global coalgebra of distributions of A is the limit over
all cotensor coalgebras corresponding to finite subquivers). Maybe I’ll
revamp this old material in connection with the Kontsevich&Soibelman
paper(s) for the mini-course I’m supposed to give in september.

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writing with gloves on

Okay, let’s have it out in the open :

I’m officially diagnosed as being depressed by both PD1 and PD2!

Coming from the two top experience-experts on my mood swings, I’d better take this
seriously. So, do they come up with an explanation for this ‘depression’?

PD1 blames it on the celebrated mid-life-crisis which in her world is merely the generic phrase uttered when a parent does something ‘odd’.

If thePartner wants to spend some time among old friends, or wants to get involved in community work, it’s called ‘mid-life crisis’.

When both of us join a demonstration for the first time in over a decade, it’s MLC etc. etc.

In recent years I heard her say the MLC- phrase often enough referring to her friends’ parents and thePartner but somehow I always got away, until recently…

PD2 blames it on my turning 48 last week, a fact I cannot deny but then, what’s so special about 48? I don’t get it.

Feeble as their explanations may be, they still may have a point. Sure, some losses do affect me. Some recent, some imminent, some unfortunately permanent, some hopefully temporary…

I realise this is a bit cryptic to the uninitiated, but then I’ve given up writing about personal stuff a long time ago (to the dismay of PD2 who would welcome more web-presence when self-googling…).

But wait… Hey, that may be part of the problem :

I’ve given up writing about so many things recently that there’s hardly anything sufficiently interesting left to write about.

In the post-Dutroux scare I did remove all pictures and references to our daughters from my web-pages, for you don’t want to know the weirdos that have a look at it and you definitely do not want to think about what they might do when they obtain my address from the university web-page….

Surely a valid point. So, away with all writing about personal stuff.

Then, more recently (and I hope at least some of you noticed it…) I’ve imposed a ban on critical postings about people or events going on in noncommutative algebra/geometry. The reason behind this decision is personal, so if I didnt tell you in private you’ll never find it here.

Speaking about this with Paul Smith at the last Oberwolfach, he had an hilarious reply.

“I wouldn’t say you were critical. I’d say you are sometimes pretty intense and I love it, as long as I’m not on the receiving end…”

But see, that’s just the problem. Mathematicians are so vane that there is always someone who feels to be on the receiving end!

Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that I write a somewhat critical post about the ongoing cluster-algebra hype, we all know some people who will not like it. Ditto about (again hypothetically…) symplectic-reflection algebras, ditto about etc. etc.

Compare this with the entertaining about-life-or-death fights going on in physics-blogs. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and want to have a good laugh, have a go at the comments to this Not Even Wrong Post.

Possibly, I should come to terms with the fact that blogging is an activity which will never be tolerated by the autism-enriched environment of mathematicians and that I should just give it up.

Or, perhaps, I should regain my writing-freedom and blog about whatever I feel strongly about at that particular moment in time (and remember, I do suffer from violent mood-swings so these opinions may change overnight…), be it critical or if you want ‘intense’, and hope that not too many will think they are on the receiving end…

I realize that I will sometimes be accused of ‘jealousy’, sometimes of being ‘frustrated’. But, let’s face it : bottling up one’s frustrations, that’s precisely the thing that leads to a genuine depression…

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symmetry and the monster

has written a beautiful book intended for the general public
on Symmetry and the Monster. The
book’s main theme is the classification of the finite simple groups. It
starts off with the introduction of groups by Galois, gives the
classifivcation of the finite Lie groups, the Feit-Thompson theorem and
the construction of several of the sporadic groups (including the
Mathieu groups, the Fischer and Conway groups and clearly the
(Baby)Monster), explains the Leech lattice and the Monstrous Moonshine
conjectures and ends with Richard Borcherds proof of them using vertex
operator algebras. As in the case of Music of the
it is (too) easy to be critical about notation. For example,
whereas groups are just called symmetry groups, I don’t see the point of
calling simple groups ‘atoms of symmetry’. But, unlike du Sautoy,
Mark Ronan stays close to mathematical notation, lattices are just
lattices, characer-tables are just that, j-function is what it is etc.
And even when he simplifies established teminology, for example
‘cyclic arithmetic’ for modular arithmetic, ‘cross-section’
for involution centralizer, ‘mini j-functions’ for Hauptmoduln
etc. there are footnotes (as well as a glossary) mentioning the genuine
terms. Group theory is a topic with several colourful people
including the three Johns John Leech, John
and John Conway
and several of the historical accounts in the book are a good read. For
example, I’ve never known that the three Conway groups were essentially
discovered in just one afternoon and a few telephone exchanges between
Thompson and Conway. This year I’ve tried to explain some of
monstrous moonshine to an exceptionally good second year of
undergraduates but failed miserably. Whereas I somehow managed to give
the construction and proof of simplicity of Mathieu 24, elliptic and
modular functions were way too difficult for them. Perhaps I’ll give it
another (downkeyed) try using ‘Symmetry and the Monster’ as
reading material. Let’s hope Oxford University Press will soon release a
paperback (and cheaper) version.

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soaked but hopefull

When more than 20.000 Antwerpees from all etnic and religious
backgrounds defy the pouring rain to march against racism, I’m
(moderately) hopeful about Antwerps future. If you are
interested to know the cause for this demonstration, here is a pretty accurate account of recent
events in Antwerp (and Belgium).

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le travers – april 2006

Here is a
solution to the Intel-Mac schizo-situation of having GAP running on the
Mac-partition, whereas Singular and Maxima had to run on the
WindowsXP-partition (see this post for
the problems) : get and install Sage!

Crete de
l’espinasse : Wednesday 20.17h Alt. 750m. The nearest place having
mobile reception. It takes a walk of 1.25km and a climb of 150m to get a

Blanche : Tuesday 14.03h : Alt. 897m : the end of a 6km climb from

Travers : Monday 19hrs Alt. 604m, 19 C…

St Regis : Sunday 11.45h Alt. 719m. The highest point of the
bicycle-tour : le Travers-Dompnac-Pourcharesse-St Melany-le Travers
(27.2 km).

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why mathematicians can’t write

The Music of the
will attract many young people to noncommutative geometry a
la Connes. It would be great if someone would spend a year trying to
write a similar pamphlet in favour of noncommutative _algebraic_
geometry, but as I mentioned before chances are not very high as most
mathematicians are unwilling to sacrifice precision and technical detail
for popular success. Still, perhaps we should reconsider this position.
A fine illustration why most mathematicians cannot write books for a
bigger audience is to be found in the preface to the book “The
problems of mathematics” (out of print or at least out of by the Warwick mathematician Ian Stewart.
Below I quote a fraction from his ‘An interview with a

(I)nterviewer : … So,
Mathematician : what delights do you have in store for us?
(M)athematician : I thought I’d say a bit about how you can get a TOP
but non-DIFF 4-manifold by surgery on the Kummer surface. You see,
there’s this fascinating cohomology intersection form related to the
exceptional Lie algebra $E_8$, and…
(I) : That’s
(M) : Thank you.
(I) : Is all that
gobbledegook really significant?
(M) : Of course! It’s one of the
most important discoveries of the last decade!
(I) : Can you
explain it in words ordinary mortals can understand?
(M) : Look,
buster, if ordinary mortals could understand it, you wouldn’t need
mathematicians to do the job for you, right?
(I) : I don’t want
the technical details. Just a general feeling for what’s going on.
(M) : You can’t get a feeling for what’s going on without
understanding the technical details.
(I) : Why not?
(M) :
Well, you just can’t.
(I) : Physicists seem to manage.
: But they work with things from everyday experience…
(I) :
Sure. ‘How gluon antiscreening affects the colour charge of a
quark.’ ‘Conduction bands in Gallium Arsenide.’ Trip over
‘em all the time on the way to work, don’t you?
(M) : Yes,
(I) : I’m sure that the physicists find all the
technical details just as fascinating as you do. But they don’t let them
intrude so much.
(M) : But how can I explain things properly if I
don’t give the details?
(I) : How can anyone else
understand them if you do?

(M) : But if I skip the fine
points, some of the things I say won’t be completely true! How can I
talk about manifolds without mentioning that the theorems only work if
the manifolds are finite-dimensional paracompact Hausdorff with empty
(I) : Lie a bit.
(M) : Oh, but I couldn’t do
(I) : Why not? Everybody else does.
(M) : But, I
must tell the truth!
(I) : Sure. But you might be prepared to
bend it a little, if it helps people understand what you’re doing.
(M) : Well…

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