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The topology of dreams

Last May, the meeting Lacan et Grothendieck, l’impossible rencontre? took place in Paris (see this post). Video’s of that meeting are now available online.

Here’s the talk by Alain Connes and Patrick Gauthier-Lafaye on their book A l’ombre de Grothendieck et de Lacan : un topos sur l’inconscient ? (see this post ).

Let’s quickly recall their main ideas:

1. The unconscious is structured as a topos (Jacques Lacan argued it was structured as a language), because we need a framework allowing logic without the law of the excluded middle for Lacan’s formulas of sexuation to make some sense at all.

2. This topos may differs from person to person, so we do not all share the same rules of logic (as observed in real life).

3. Consciousness is related to the points of the topos (they are not precise on this, neither in the talk, nor the book).

4. All these individual toposes are ruled by a classifying topos, and they see Lacan’s work as the very first steps towards trying to describe the unconscious by a geometrical theory (though his formulas are not first order).

Surely these are intriguing ideas, if only we would know how to construct the topos of someone’s unconscious.

Let’s go looking for clues.

At the same meeting, there was a talk by Daniel Sibony: “Mathématiques et inconscient”

Sibony started out as mathematician, then turned to psychiatry in the early 70ties. He was acquainted with both Grothendieck and Lacan, and even brought them together once, over lunch, some day in 1973. He makes a one-line appearance in Grothendieck’s Récoltes et Semailles, when G discribes his friends in ‘Survivre et Vivre’:

“Daniel Sibony (who stayed away from this group, while pursuing its evolution out of the corner of a semi-disdainful, smirking eye)”

In his talk, Sibony said he had a similar idea, 50 years before Connes and Gauthier-Lafaye (3.04 into the clip):

“At the same time (early 70ties) I did a seminar in Vincennes, where I was a math professor, on the topology of dreams. At the time I didn’t have categories at my disposal, but I used fibered spaces instead. I showed how we could interpret dreams with a fibered space. This is consistent with the Freudian idea, except that Freud says we should take the list of words from the story of the dream and look for associations. For me, these associations were in the fibers, and these thoughts on fibers and sheaves have always followed me. And now, after 50 years I find this pretty book by Alain Connes and Patrick Gauthier-Lafaye on toposes, and see that my thoughts on dreams as sheaves and fibered spaces are but a special case of theirs.”

This looks interesting. After all, Freud called dream interpretation the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious. “It is the ‘King’s highway’ along which everyone can travel to discover the truth of unconscious processes for themselves.”

Sibony clarifies his idea in the interview L’utilisation des rêves en psychothérapie with Maryse Siksou.

“The dream brings blocks of words, of “compacted” meanings, and we question, according to the good old method, each of these blocks, each of these points and which we associate around (we “unblock” around…), we let each point unfold according to the “fiber” which is its own.

I introduced this notion of the dream as fibered space in an article in the review Scilicet in 1972, and in a seminar that I gave at the University of Vincennes in 1973 under the title “Topologie et interpretation des rêves”, to which Jacques Lacan and his close retinue attended throughout the year.

The idea is that the dream is a sheaf, a bundle of fibers, each of which is associated with a “word” of the dream; interpretation makes the fibers appear, and one can pick an element from each, which is of course “displaced” in relation to the word that “produced” the fiber, and these elements are articulated with other elements taken in other fibers, to finally create a message which, once again, does not necessarily say the meaning of the dream because a dream has as many meanings as recipients to whom it is told, but which produces a strong statement, a relevant statement, which can restart the work.”

Key images in the dream (the ‘points’ of the base-space) can stand for entirely different situations in someone’s life (the points in the ‘fiber’ over an image). The therapist’s job is to find a suitable ‘section’ in this ‘sheaf’ to further the theraphy.

It’s a bit like translating a sentence from one language to another. Every word (point of the base-space) can have several possible translations with subtle differences (the points in the fiber over the word). It’s the translator’s job to find the best ‘section’ in this sheaf of possibilities.

This translation-analogy is used by Daniel Sibony in his paper Traduire la passe:

“It therefore operates just like the dream through articulated choices, from one fiber to another, in a bundle of speaking fibers; it articulates them by seeking the optimal section. In fact, the translation takes place between two fiber bundles, each in a language, but in the starting bundle the choice seems fixed by the initial text. However, more or less consciously, the translator “bursts” each word into a larger fiber, he therefore has a bundle of fibers where the given text seems after the fact a singular choice, which will produce another choice in the bundle of the other language.”

This paper also contains a pre-ChatGPT story (we’re in 1998), in which the language model fails because it has far too few alternatives in its fibers:

I felt it during a “humor festival” where I was approached by someone (who seemed to have some humor) and who was a robot. We had a brief conversation, very acceptable, beyond the conventional witticisms and knowing sighs he uttered from time to time to complain about the lack of atmosphere, repeating that after all we are not robots.

I thought at first that it must be a walking walkie-talkie and that in fact I was talking to a guy who was remote control from his cabin. But the object was programmed; the unforeseen effects of meaning were all the more striking. To my question: “Who created you?” he answered with a strange word, a kind of technical god.

I went on to ask him who he thought created me; his answer was immediate: “Oedipus”. (He knew, having questioned me, that I was a psychoanalyst.) The piquancy of his answer pleased me (without Oedipus, at least on a first level, no analyst). These bursts of meaning that we know in children, psychotics, to whom we attribute divinatory gifts — when they only exist, save their skin, questioning us about our being to defend theirs — , these random strokes of meaning shed light on the classic aftermaths where when a tile arrives, we hook it up to other tiles from the past, it ties up the pain by chaining the meaning.

Anyway, the conversation continuing, the robot asked me to psychoanalyse him; I asked him what he was suffering from. His answer was immediate: “Oedipus”.

Disappointing and enlightening: it shows that with each “word” of the interlocutor, the robot makes correspond a signifying constellation, a fiber of elements; choosing a word in each fiber, he then articulates the whole with obvious sequence constraints: a bit of readability and a certain phrasal push that leaves open the game of exchange. And now, in the fiber concerning the “psy” field, chance or constraint had fixed him on the same word, “Oedipus”, which, by repeating itself, closed the scene heavily.

Okay, we have a first potential approximation to Connes and Gauthier-Lafaye’s elusive topos, a sheaf of possible interpretation of base-words in a language.

But, the base-space is still rather discrete, or at best linearly ordered. And also in the fibers, and among the sections, there’s not much of a topology at work.

Perhaps, we should have a look at applications of topology and/or topos theory in large language models?



The shape of languages


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.

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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…

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