Thursday, May 21, 2015

Lady Gaga of French mathematicians

The New Yorker magazine has a profile of a famous mathematician:
Villani has been called the Lady Gaga of French mathematicians. ...

Given the chance, not many of Villani’s colleagues would choose fame over mathematics. “A mathematician would usually be very reluctant to say half-lies,” Mouhot said, or to omit or overstate something. Villani has taken flak for involving himself in politics ...

Many mathematicians are glad that Villani is willing to participate in public life, Mouhot said, so that they don’t have to.
Yes, you rarely see publicity-seeking mathematicians who go around overstating things to get attention. In contrast, there are lots of physicists who do this all the time, such as Stephen Hawking, Sean M. Carroll, Brian Greene, and Lawrence Krauss. An extreme example is Michio Kaku.

Peter Woit used to be a physicist, but after switching to mathematics, he is now repulsed by overblown and unjustifiable claims.

Einstein's colleagues used to tell him that he was embarrassing himself with all the publicity seeking. So did Carl Sagan's.

The mathematicians who solved the biggest problems of the last 25 years, Fermat's Last Theorem and the Poincare Conjecture, are recluses who refuse to do any interviews.

I side with the mathematicians. A theme of this blog is that leading physicists have really embarrassed themselves by promoting wacky theories.
He was high on his soapbox now. “Languages were invented all around the world; technology was invented many times. Mathematics was developed once and collectively —- your culture cannot be complete if you don’t have at least a glimpse of what is mathematical reasoning.”
This is a good point. You sometimes hear people say that math is a language, but that misses the point of what math is all about.

I occasionally see claims that Chinese proved Pythagorean Theorem, or other claims that math was separately invented. These are nearly all false, as far as I can see. The axiomatic method, as in Euclid's Elements, was only developed by the ancient Greeks, as far as I know.

Yes, there are examples of some independent discovery, such as Newton and Leibniz finding calculus. But even in that case, they are more access to each others ideas that they wanted to admit.


  1. "I side with the mathematicians"

    Except todays mathematicians don't want to pursue physics for tenure! Its too risky. Thats why Woit got out of physics in the first place.

    "A theme of this blog is that leading physicists have really embarrassed themselves by promoting wacky theories"

    You mean like this string theory book "Orbiting the Moons of Pluto: Complex Solutions to the Einstein, Maxwell, Schrodinger, and Dirac Equations"
    World Scientific @ 2011

    Final Chapter: 'Holographic Wormhole Drive: Philosophical Breakthrough in FTL Warp-Drive Technology'

    The "sensible" physicists, the condensed matter guys aren't making much progress either.

  2. "The mathematicians who solved the biggest problems of the last 25 years, Fermat's Last Theorem and the Poincare Conjecture,"

    This is your idea of progress? You bums haven't done anything worthwhile in the past 40 years. Do you actually get paid to write this useless blog?

  3. Yes, solving those problems was progress. Big progress, as the solutions advanced math in many ways. No, I do not get paid to write this blog.

  4. Your allegation that Stephen Hawking is a publicity seeker is both fair and unfair: Hawking is in the most unfortunate position of having very high maintenance costs, far higher than that of a tenured professor, in order to stay alive, therefore he has to generate a substantial income stream by whatever means are at his disposal.

  5. Roger,

    Your point about the axiomatic method being invented only in the ancient Greece is, to the best of my knowledge, valid. In particular, the ancient Indians were much more synthetic, i.e. inductive, in their thinking, including in their mathematial thought, and not as deductive as the ancient Greeks.

    However, coming to calculus, there is very definite evidence that Bhaskara II had indeed reached the idea of calculus in 12th century India, i.e., a few centuries before Newton and Leibnitz did. I have examined the evidence, including Bhaskara II's original Sanskrit verses. Though my scrutiny was limited just to the level of an interested engineer, and not to the depth of a specialist of history of mathematics, I can tell you that this is not a hyper, new-agey, "cultural diversity" (read cultural egalitariansm) sort of a thing. It's authentic. The guy gives ample evidence to have gotten the "it" of the infinitesimals and the *instantaneous* velocities.

    I also concurr that mathematics is not a language, at least not so at the fundamental level. It may be seen as a very special purpose language, but then, such a view of mathematics can be taken only at a higher level of abstraction.

    Qua language, mathematics is a language in which statements can be made only about something related to quantities, nothing else. More accurately, the statements belonging to the language that is mathematics proper, are only about how the different *methods* (to measure quantitites) relate to each other. Each mathematical object stands as an encapsulation of a method, and the statements simply relate such objects.

    In contrast, any statements about how various quantities themselves relate to each other belong to physics. Given an equation, if it is taken as a statement of physics, you have to answer the question: quantities, *of what*? In contrast, for maths, you have to answer the question: *methods* (of measurements), *how*? (or, *in what way*?)