Short Items

  • Science magazine this week has an article and a podcast about the NSA and the AMS. AMS president David Vogan is portrayed as outraged at the NSA’s misuse of mathematics, but without much support for doing anything about it:

    But after all was said and done, no action was taken. Vogan describes a meeting about the matter last year with an AMS governing committee as “terrible,” revealing little interest among the rest of the society’s leadership in making a public statement about NSA’s ethics, let alone cutting ties. Ordinary AMS members, by and large, feel the same way, adds Vogan, who this week is handing over the presidency to Robert Bryant, a mathematician at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. For now, U.S. mathematicians aren’t willing to disown their shadowy but steadfast benefactor.

  • Two odd things from the piece and the podcast:

    1. The NSA budget is highly classified. Essentially nothing is known about it, with estimates of its total ranging from $8 billion to $25 billion/year (by the way, can anyone tell me why that number is a secret?). Precisely one line item in their budget is publicly reported: the $4 million to the AMS-administered grant program. The AMS seems to be the only organization in the world that the NSA has a publicly disclosed relationship with.
    2. The reporter said he tried but was unable to get in contact with Richard George, the ex-NSA person who published a piece in the Notices claiming the NSA backdoor was “just innuendo”.
  • On a much more positive note, this week the New Yorker has a really wonderful piece about Yitang Zhang.
  • There’s an interview at the Huffington Post with Lenny Susskind about The Future of Physics. It looks like his point of view is that there is no known alternative, no matter what happens at the LHC, that fine-tuning is evidence for the multiverse is evidence for string theory. The only alternative now: hope for an unforseen surprise.

    [Oops, I should have noticed this was a republication of a 2006 interview. The “expect the unexpected” thing didn’t work out…]

Update: Paul Frampton tells me that he has published a book telling the story of what happened to him. It’s now available on Amazon.

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21 Responses to Short Items

  1. Als says:

    It seems that Susskind’s interview is from 2006.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Als, I should have seen that. Interesting (or sad…) that nine years later it seems as current as then. In 2006 I guess there was more reason to “expect the unexpected” at the LHC.

  3. Richard says:

    David Vogan was a truly decent and admirable person (as well as being a tremendously talented and generous mathematician) when I knew him at MIT in the 1980s and it seems that some things do not change.

  4. Yatima says:

    by the way, can anyone tell me why that number is a secret?

    Because knowing the actual budget of a bureaucratic outfit is like knowing someone’s True Name: It gives you power of it. That cannot be allowed to happen. So it’s somewhere in this 52 billion lump sum (extra expenses are, I suppose, excluded because this sounds suspiciously low to me).

    Related reading: A psychological history of the NSA

  5. Anon says:

    Here’s almost everything you wanted to know about the intelligence community budget. The justification for keeping it such a safeguarded secret is so that weaknesses aren’t found and exploited in various programs.

  6. Anon says:

    The relevant slides appear to be p. 84 for a budget of around 12 billion and page 159 with a listing for cryptologic math and IDA research

  7. Oldster says:

    The following exchange is part of that Huffington Post interview with Susskind in 2006:

    Odenwald: If string theory loses its experimental support at the LHC, wouldn’t it be far worse than merely going back to cosmology circa 1975 or even 1965? We would have to question the very mathematical tools we have been using for the last 50 years!

    Susskind: I agree with your analysis, except that I would add: Expect the unexpected. Unforseen surprises are the rule in science, not the exception. Remember: Stuff happens.

    That “50 years” comment jumped out at me, and I notice Susskind seemed to agree with it. I wonder if they were both thinking that quantum field theory itself could face new doubts in that case. I’m old enough to remember when Dirac stated doubts about QFT …

  8. tt says:

    Frampton missed an opportunity. He should have called it
    “Frampton comes online”

  9. Michael Hutchings says:

    I question the statement “Ordinary AMS members, by and large, feel the same way” (about not making statements about the ethics of the NSA, let alone cutting ties). How about a survey or a poll? I imagine that those who receive financially support from the NSA would like to continue to do so, but this is probably a small fraction of academic mathematicians, and I would expect many of the rest to have serious ethical concerns (if they are paying attention at all).

  10. Grad Student says:

    Yes, the fact that Susskind’s remarks are basically the same today show how physics/string theory has stalled.

    Susskind, Frampton, et al. definitely had a lot more hope of “Seeing something unexpected” a few decades back:


  11. Pingback: Mathematicians Uncomfortable With Ties To NSA, But Not Pulling Back * The New World

  12. Peter Woit says:

    I have no data at all to support this, but my guess from talking to people is that if you remove the “I don’t care” majority, sentiment among mathematicians who do care is much more heavily on the anti-NSA side. Even among those with NSA grants you might find some who don’t see why the AMS is involved in this (as far as I know there’s no good reason for that program to not just be run by the NSA, leaving the AMS out of it).

  13. jsm says:

    Of course, NSA funnels the money through the AMS for the prestige and influence it buys them — if it simply wanted to help math in the US, it could give the money to NSF. The shocking thing is how little the AMS has been willing to sell itself out for.

    Vogan surely knows more about the mood among the AMS membership than the rest of us — after all, he’s served on many committees. Judging by the Elsevier boycott, I’d guess that a petition to sever the AMS’s ties with NSA would get about 2000 signatures (the same 2000).

  14. Martin S. says:

    Regarding a poll,
    it seems that those who hope for a safe employment and/or do not know a freer world, like them.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Martin S.,
    I doubt those numbers are very meaningful, with most respondents probably not having any idea what the NSA is or does (not everyone in the US carefully follows the Snowden revelations…). The pattern of NSA favorability falling sharply with age may just reflect that as people get older they are more likely to have figured out what the NSA is.

  16. Visitor says:

    “The pattern of NSA favorability falling sharply with age may just reflect that as people get older they are more likely to have figured out what the NSA is.”

    Or maybe the older people are the less likely they are to have grown up in the “let’s put our whole lives online via Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of that” world.

    Of course, that doesn’t include the ideological baggage that your “figured out what the NSA is” carries, but it might be more accurate for lacking it.

  17. NoGo says:

    Hello Mr Woit!
    Like your blog very much.
    I thought you may find this article interesting, and am very curious what you think of it:

    For some reason it makes a bit of a splash in Russian mainstream media…

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Sorry, but understanding exactly what those authors have shown that is new is beyond my expertise. Personally I’m happy to characterize the wavefunction as “real”, to the extent that anything is “real”, but that’s just words, capturing likely not at all whatever the actual issue addressed by the paper might be.

  19. Shantanu says:

    Peter, something OT.
    Another brilliant paper by Avi about hiring

  20. abbyyorker says:

    I read Frampton’s e-book and I wish him all the best. That bikini model was hot. But it’s hard to believe he was THAT naive, especially reading the nyt transcript of his joke messaging from the airport. Anyway, he did his time and good luck to him.

  21. Jean D says:

    «by the way, can anyone tell me why that number is a secret?»

    In the 6th Century, Sun Tzu put it this way: «Appear strong where you are weak and weak where you are strong.» This way the other guy can’t tell how many «chariots» you can really field.

    Even though everyone knows what they personally would do with an X37-B, no one knows for sure yet what it’s all about. A lower figure would indeed point to the Air force only testing a concept, the higher figure may put a sat killer laser like on the Argleigh Burke class of ships on its next flight. All good engineers can tell you everything is feasable, and will also tell you exactly how much it will cost.

    Surely you must know we can infer many things with the proper and true data. You PhDs do the same with the Universe.

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