Can one explain schemes to hipsters?

Nature (the journal) asked David Mumford and John Tate (of Fields and Abel fame) to write an obituary for Alexander Grothendieck.

Probably, it was their first experience ever to get a paper… rejected!

What was their plan?

How did they carry it out?

What went wrong?

And, can we learn from this?

the plan

Mumford and Tate set themselves an ambitious goal. Although Nature would have been happiest with a purely biographical note, they seized the opportunity to explain three ‘simple’ things to a wider audience: (1) schemes, (2) category theory, and, (3) cohomology…

“Since the readership of Nature were more or less entirely made up of non-mathematicians, it seemed as though our challenge was to try to make some key parts of Grothendieck’s work accessible to such an audience. Obviously the very definition of a scheme is central to nearly all his work, and we also wanted to say something genuine about categories and cohomology.”

1. Schemes

Here, the basic stumbling block, as Mumford acknowledged afterwards, is of course that most people don’t know what a commutative ring is. If you’ve never encountered a scheme before in broad daylight, I’m not certain this paragraph tells you how to recognise one:

“… In simplest terms, he proposed attaching to any commutative ring (any set of things for which addition, subtraction and a commutative multiplication are defined, like the set of integers, or the set of polynomials in variables x,y,z with complex number coefficients) a geometric object, called the Spec of the ring (short for spectrum) or an affine scheme, and patching or gluing together these objects to form the scheme. …”

2. Categories

Here they do a pretty good job, I think. They want to explain Grothendieck’s ‘functor of points’ and the analogy they used with several measuring experiments is neat:

“… Grothendieck used the web of associated maps — called morphisms — from a variable scheme to a fixed one to describe schemes as functors and noted that many functors that were not obviously schemes at all arose in algebraic geometry.

This is similar in science to having many experiments measuring some object from which the unknown real thing is pieced together or even finding something unexpected from its influence on known things….”

3. Cohomology

Here, Mumford “hoped that the inclusion of the unit 3-sphere in $\mathbb{C}^2- \{ (0,0) \}$ would be fairly clear to most scientists and so could be used to explain the Mike Artin’s breakthrough that $H^3_{et}(\mathbb{A}^2 – \{ (0,0) \}) \not= 0$.”

I’d love to know the fractional odds an experienced bookmaker would set in case someone (not me!) wants to bet on them successfully getting this message across.

“… Using complex coordinates (z,w), a plane has four real dimensions and taking out a point, what’s left is topologically a three dimensional sphere. Following the inspired suggestions of Grothendieck, Artin was able to show how with algebra alone that a suitably defined third cohomology group of this space has one generator, that is the sphere lives algebraically too. Together they developed what is called étale cohomology at a famous IHES seminar. …”

the aftermath

The good news is that Nature will still publish the Tate-Mumford obit, is some form or another, next week, on januari 15th. According to Mumford they managed to sneak in three examples of commutative rings in passing: polynomials, dual numbers and finite fields.

what went wrong?

The usual?

We mathematicians are obsessed with getting definitions right. We truly believe that no-one can begin to understand the implications of an idea if we don’t teach them the nitty gritty details of our treasured definitions first.

It appears that we are alone on this.

Did physicists smack us in the face with the full standard-model Lagrangian, demanding us to digest the minute details of it first, before they could tell us they had discovered the Higgs boson?

No, most scientists know how to get a message across. You need 3 things:

– a catchy name (the ‘God Particle’)

– good graphics (machines at CERN, collision pictures)

– a killer analogy (the most popular, in relation to the Higgs particle, seems to be “like Maggie Tatcher walking into a room”…)

can we learn from this?

Of course we can.

And frankly, I’m somewhat surprised Mumford missed this chance.

After all, he dreamed up the graphics and the killer analogy

Further reading

– Mumford’s original rant : Can one explain schemes to biologists?

– John Baez’ follow-up post : Can one explain schemes to biologists?

the birthday of the primes=knots analogy

Last time we discovered that the mental picture to view prime numbers as knots in $S^3$ was first dreamed up by David Mumford. Today, we’ll focus on where and when this happened.

3. When did Mazur write his unpublished preprint?

According to his own website, Barry Mazur did write the paper Remarks on the Alexander polynomial in 1963 or 1964. A quick look at the references gives us a coarse lower- and upper-estimate.

Apart from a paper by Iwasawa and one by Milnor, all references predate 1962 giving us a lower-bound. More interesting is reference (14) to David Mumford’s Geometric Invariant Theory (GIT) which was first published in 1965 and is referred to as ‘in preparation’, so the paper was written no later than 1965. If we look a bit closer we see than some GIT-references are very precise

indicating that Mazur must have had the final version of GIT to consult, making it rather difficult to believe that the preprint was written late 1963 or early 1964.

Mazur’s dating of the preprint is probably based on this penciled note on the frontpage of the only surviving copy of the preprint

It reads : “Date from about 63/64, H.R. Morton”. Hugh Morton of Liverpool University confirms that it is indeed his writing on the preprint.

Further, he told me that early 64 Christopher Zeeman held a Topology Symposium in Cambridge UK, where Hugh was a graduate student at the time and, as far as he could recall, Mazur attended that conference and gave him the preprint on that occasion, whence the 63/64 dating. Hugh kindly offered to double-check this with Terry Wall who cannot remember Mazur attending that particular conference.

In fact, we will see that a more correct dating of the Mazur-preprint will be : late 1964 or early 1965.

4. The birthday : July 10th 1964

Clearly, Mumford’s insight predates the Mazur-preprint. In the first section, Mazur mentions ‘Grothendieck cohomology groups’ rather than ‘Etale cohomology groups’.

At the time, Artin’s seminar notes on Grothendieck topologies (spring 1962) were widely distributed, and Artin and Grothendieck were in the process of developing etale cohomology in their Paris 1963/64 seminar SGA 4, while Mumford was working on GIT in Harvard.

Mike Artin, David Mumford and Jean-Louis Verdier all attended the Woods Hole conference from july 6 till july 31 1964, famous for producing the Atiyah-Bott fixed point theorem (according to Fulton first proved by Verdier at the conference).

Etale cohomology was a hot topic at that conference. On july 10th there were three talks, Artin spoke on ‘Etale cohomology of schemes’, Verdier on ‘A duality theorem in the etale cohomology of schemes’ and John Tate on ‘Etale cohomology over number fields’.

After a first week of talks, more informal seminars were organized, including the Atiyah-Bott seminar leading to the ‘Woods hole duality theorem’ and one by Lubin-Tate and Serre on elliptic curves and formal groups. Two seminars adressed Etale Cohomology.

Artin and Verdier ran a seminar on the etale cohomology of number fields leading to their duality result, and, three young turks : Daniel Quillen, Steve Kleiman and Robin Hartshorne ran a Baby Seminar on Etale cohomology

Probably it is safe to say that the talks by Artin, Verdier and Tate on July 10th sparked the primes=knots idea, and if not then, a couple of days later.

5. The birthplace : the Whitney Estate

The ‘Woods Hole’ conference took place at the Whitney Estate and all the lectures took place in the rustic rooms of the main building and the participants (and their families) were housed in rented cottages in the neighborhood, for the duration of the summer.

The only picture i managed to find from the Whitney house comes from a rather surprising source : Gardeners and Caretakers ofWoods Hole. Anyway, here it is :

Probably, the knots=primes analogy was first dreamed up inside, or in the immediate neighborhood, on a walk to or from the cottages, overlooking the harbor.

Who dreamed up the primes=knots analogy?

One of the more surprising analogies around is that prime numbers can be viewed as knots in the 3-sphere $S^3$. The motivation behind it is that the (etale) fundamental group of $\pmb{spec}(\mathbb{Z}/(p))$ is equal to (the completion) of the fundamental group of a circle $S^1$ and that the embedding

$\pmb{spec}(\mathbb{Z}/(p)) \subset \pmb{spec}(\mathbb{Z})$

embeds this circle as a knot in a 3-dimensional simply connected manifold which, after Perelman, has to be $S^3$. For more see the what is the knot associated to a prime?-post.

In recent months new evidence has come to light allowing us to settle the genesis of this marvelous idea.

1. The former consensus

Until now, the generally accepted view (see for example the ‘Mazur-dictionary-post’ or Morishita’s expository paper) was that the analogy between knots and primes was first pointed out by Barry Mazur in the middle of the 1960’s when preparing for his lectures at the Summer Conference on Algebraic Geometry, at Bowdoin, in 1966. The lecture notes where later published in 1973 in the Annales of the ENS as ‘Notes on etale cohomology of number fields’.

For further use in this series of posts, please note the acknowledgement at the bottom of the first page, reproduced below : “It gives me pleasure to thank J.-P. Serre for his vigorous editing and his suggestions and corrections, which led to this revised version.”

Independently, Yuri I. Manin spotted the same analogy at around the same time. However, this point of view was quickly forgotten in favor of the more classical one of viewing number fields as analogous to algebraic function fields of one variable. Subsequently, in the mid 1990’s Mikhail Kapranov and Alexander Reznikov took up the analogy between number fields and 3-manifolds again, and called the resulting study arithmetic topology.

2. The new evidence

On december 13th 2010, David Feldman posted a MathOverflow-question Mazur’s unpublished manuscript on primes and knots?. He wrote : “The story of the analogy between knots and primes, which now has a literature, started with an unpublished note by Barry Mazur. I’m not absolutely sure this is the one I mean, but in his paper, Analogies between group actions on 3-manifolds and number fields, Adam Sikora cites B. Mazur, Remarks on the Alexander polynomial, unpublished notes.

Two months later, on february 15th David Feldman suddenly found the missing preprint in his mail-box and made it available. The preprint is now also available from Barry Mazur’s website. Mazur adds the following comment :

“In 1963 or 1964 I wrote an article Remarks on the Alexander Polynomial [PDF] about the analogy between knots in the three-dimensional sphere and prime numbers (and, correspondingly, the relationship between the Alexander polynomial and Iwasawa Theory). I distributed some copies of my article but never published it, and I misplaced my own copy. In subsequent years I have had many requests for my article and would often try to search through my files to find it, but never did. A few weeks ago Minh-Tri Do asked me for my article, and when I said I had none, he very kindly went on the web and magically found a scanned copy of it. I’m extremely grateful to Minh-Tri Do for his efforts (and many thanks, too, to David Feldman who provided the lead).”


The opening paragraph of this unpublished preprint contains a major surprise!

Mazur points to David Mumford as the originator of the ‘primes-are-knots’ idea : “Mumford has suggested a most elegant model as a geometric interpretation of the above situation : $\pmb{spec}(\mathbb{Z}/p\mathbb{Z})$ is like a one-dimensional knot in $\pmb{spec}(\mathbb{Z})$ which is like a simply connected three-manifold.”

In a later post we will show that one can even pinpoint the time and place when and where this analogy was first dreamed-up to within a few days and a couple of miles.

For the impatient among you, have a sneak preview of the cradle of birth of the primes=knots idea…