Noncommutative Analysis

Category: politics in math

A comment on the sowa versus Gowers affair

I wanted to write about something else this weekend, but I got distracted and ended up writing this post. O well…

This is post is reply to (part of) a post by Scott Aaronson. I got kind of heated up by his unfair portrayal of the blog “Stop Timothy Gowers!!!“, and started writing a reply which got to be ridiculously long, so I moved it here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thirty one years later: a counterattack on Halmos’s critique of non-standard analysis

As if to celebrate in an original way the fifty year anniversary of Bernstein and Robinson’s solution to (a generalization of) the Smith-Halmos conjecture (briefly, that if T is an operator such that p(T) is compact for some polynomial p, then T has an invariant subspace), several notable mathematicians posted a interesting and very nonstandard (as they say) paper on the arxiv.

This paper briefly tells the story regarding the publication of this paper, in which Bernstein and Robinson use Robinson’s new theory of non-standard analysis (NSA) to prove the above mentioned conjecture in operator theory. This was one of the first major successes of NSA, and perhaps one would think that all of the operator theory community should have accepted the achievement with nothing but high praise. Instead, it was received somewhat coldly: Halmos went to work immediately to translate the NSA proof and published a paper proving the same result, with a proof in “standard” operator theoretic terms. (See the paper, I am leaving out the juicy parts). And then, since 1966 until 2000 (more or less), Halmos has been apparently at “war” with NSA (in the paper the word “battle” is used), and has also had criticism of logic; for example, it is implied in his book that he did not always consider logic to be a part of mathematics, worse, it seems that he has not always considered logicians to be mathematicians. (When I wrote about Halmos’s book a few months ago, I wrote that I do not agree with all the opinions expressed in the book, and I remember having the issue with logic and logicians in my mind when writing that).

In the paper that appeared on the arxiv today, the authors take revenge on Halmos. Besides a (convincing) rebuttal of Halmos’s criticisms, the seven authors hand Halmos at least seven blows, not all of them below the belt. The excellent and somewhat cruel title says it all: A non-standard analysis of a cultural icon: the case of Paul Halmos.

Besides some feeling of uneasiness in seeing a corpse being metaphorically stabbed (where have you been in the last thirty years?), the paper raises interesting issues (without wallowing too much on either one), and may serve as a lesson to all of us. There is nothing in this story special to operator theory versus model theory, or NSA, or logic. The real story here is the suspicion and snubbish-ness of mathematicians towards fields in which they do not work, and towards people working in these fields.

I see it all the time. Don’t kid me: you have also seen quite a lot of it. It is possible, I confess, that I have exercised myself a small measure of suspicion and contempt to things that I don’t understand. As the authors of the paper hint, these things are worse than wrong – they might actually hurt people.

Anyway, many times people who are ignorantly snobbish to other fields end up looking like idiots. Stop doing that, or thirty years from now a mob of experts will come and tear you to shreds.

P.S. – It seems that the question of who was the referee of the Bernstein-Robinson paper is not settled, though some suspect it was Halmos. Well, if someone could get their hands on the (anonymous!) referee report (maybe Bernstein or Robinson kept the letter?), I am quite sure that if it was Halmos, it would be clear. In other words, if Bernstein or Robinson suspected that it was him on account of the style, then I bet it was.

 

P.P.S. – regarding the theorem starting this discussion the quickest way to understand it is via Lomonosov’s theorem. The invariant subspace theorem proved by Bernstein and Robinson (polynomially compact operator has an invariant subspace) is now superseded by Lomonosov’s theorem (google it for a simple proof), which says that every bounded operator on a Banach space that commutes with a nonzero compact operator has a non-trivial invariant subspace.

Something sweet for the new year

Tim Gowers recently announced the start of a new journal, “Discrete Analysis”. The sweet thing about this journal is that it is an arxiv overlay journal, meaning that the journal will act like most other elctronic journals with the difference that all it does in the end (after standard peer review and editorial decisions) is put up a link on its website to a certain version of the preprint on the arxiv. The costs are so low, that neither readers nor authors are supposed to pay. In the beginning, Cambridge University will cover the costs of this particular journal, and there are hopes that funding will be found later (of course, arxiv has to be funded as well, but this does not seem to incur additional costs on arxiv). The journal uses a platform called Scholastica (which does charge something, but relatively low – like $10 per paper) so they did not have to set up their webpage and deal with that kind of stuff.

The idea has been around for several years and there are several other platforms (some of which do not charge anything since they are publicly funded) for carrying journals like this: Episciences, Open Journals. It seems like analysis, and operator theory in particular, are a little behind in these initiatives (correct me if I am wrong). But I am not worried, this is a matter of time.

The news of the baby journal made me especially happy since leaders like Gowers and Tao have been previously involved with the creation of the bad-idea-author-pay-journals Forum of Mathematics (Pi and Sigma), and it is great that their stature is also harnessed for a decent journal (which also happens to have a a nice and reasonable name).

Just a link to another blog I would like to put up

One of my favorite blogs written by a mathematician is Izabella Laba’s “The accidental mathematician“. The title of her blog in itself is enough to make it one of my favourites. Some of her posts on political-academic issues, especially gender, were eye openers for me. Her recent post is another powerful piece.

There is one particularly troubling paragraph. (Brought here out of context. You have to read her post for context).

Here is the first half of the paragraph, which is a statement worth considering in the context of academia, even without the context of discrimination:

We gerrymander research areas so as to keep in the people we choose and exclude those we would rather keep out. Even those gerrymandered borders can fluctuate, expanding when more names are needed on a funding application and then shrinking back when the benefits are shared. We define “interesting and exciting” as that which interests and excites those colleagues whose opinions we respect, and we respect them the most when they agree with us. We cite the “enthusiasm” of colleagues, or lack thereof, as though it were an objective and quantifiable measure of worth.

For completeness, here is the last part of the paragraph – a statement that can be made also outside the context of math, and is too worthy of consideration:

We care deeply about those women and minorities who are absent, hypothetical, or nonexistent, devising elaborate strategies to attract them and treat them fairly, but ignore those who are already there, standing right in front of us and asking for the same resources that their colleagues have been enjoying all along.

Interesting figure

I found an interesting figure in the March 2014 issue of the EMS newsletter, from the article by H. Mihaljevic´ -Brandt and O. Teschke, Journal Profiles and Beyond: What Makes a Mathematics Journal “General”?

See the right column on page 56 in this link. (God help me, I have no idea how to embed that figure in the post. Anyway, maybe it is illegal, so I don’t bother learning.) One can see the “subject bias” of Acta, Annals and Inventiones.

On the left column, there is a graph showing the percentage of papers devoted to different MSC subjects in what the authors call “generalist” math journals (note carefully that these journals are only a small subclass of all journals, chosen by a method that is loosely described in the article). On the right column there is the interesting figure, showing the subject bias. If I understand correctly, the Y-axis is the MSC number and the X-axis represents the corresponding deviation from the average percentage given in the left figure. So, for example, Operator Theory (MSC 47) is the subject of about 5 percent of the papers in a generalist journal, but in the Annals there is a deviation of minus 4 from the average, so if I understand this figure correctly, that means that about 1 percent of papers in the Annals are classified under MSC 47. Another example: Algebraic Geometry (MSC 14), takes up a significant portion of Inventiones papers, much more than it does in an average “generalist” journal.

(I am not making any claims, this could mean a lot of things and it could mean nothing. But it is definitely interesting to note.)

Another interesting point is that the authors say that of the above three super-journals, Acta “is closest to the average distribution, though it is sometimes considered as a journal with a focus on analysis”. That’s interesting in several ways.