Atiyah-Singer String Index Theorem

Just made it to Edinburgh for the Atiyah conference. It seems that someone at a local newspaper really wants to get my goat. See the story headlined World’s Great Minds Gather to Celebrate Atiyah’s Birthday.

Update: Will try and write more about the conference soon. At least one string theorist argues for the new name for the index theorem, on the grounds that it is used in string theory. When I get back to Columbia I think I’ll tell my Calculus students about the Taylor string series….

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23 Responses to Atiyah-Singer String Index Theorem

  1. Experimentalist says:

    I’d not be too worried if I were you, the Herald hasn’t much of a reputation for Science reporting.

    If you’re at the public lecture at the RSE this evening drop by the Particle Physics for Scottish Schools display exhibits- I’ll be demonstrating some basic particle physics to the public and I’d love to hear your take on our work! I’m very keen to strip the hype from HEP and show the public that it can be fascinating without the need for media sensationalism.

  2. Chris Oakley says:

    On the subject of goats, did you know that last March – for the first time – there was an Oxford vs. Cambridge Goat Race, on the same day as the Boat Race?

  3. alex says:

    Sorry, I’m probably a bit slow today (maybe every day), but what do you object to in the article? They’ve added the word string to the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem, but that’s hardly disastrous. Or was it something else?

  4. Peter Woit says:


    The Atiyah-Singer index theorem is one of the central results of 20th century mathematics, and probably my favorite theorem in mathematics. It has nothing to do with string theory. Clearly the theorem was renamed to annoy me. It’s a plot I tell you.


    Will try and stop by, but I may not get there in time….

  5. Dan says:

    Is alex being sarcastic? The troubling part is not the shoddy journalism but the natural question: “Where on earth would the journalist even get the idea that this is the name of the theorem?” The most likely answer is that the mistake was caused by too much string theory hype.

  6. Mitch Miller says:

    Calling it the Atiyah-Singer String index theorem is pretty crazy. Atiyah obviously has spent alot of time thinking about string theory (much of that thinking was very fruitful for math and physics/ST) but the index theorem is not part of that group.

  7. A Freudian slip? my guess is that the journalist first wrote ‘The Atiyah String Index Theorem’, then corrected the omission of Singer without understanding his mistake!

  8. Bored Busybody says:

    The Herald’s online editors have been notified of the gaffe. It will be interesting to see if they respond.

  9. Experimentalist says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Peter. Enjoy the rest of your time in Edinburgh!

  10. M says:

    About string jokes, there is today a new string paper in the string hep-th arXiv (0904.3101) with a string abstract where they claim a string prediction for the amount of string CP violation. Reading the paper, one can see that the string Harvard authors just assume a qualitative string texture for the string Yukawa matrices of the string quarks and of the string leptons to estimate the string Jarlskog invariant.

  11. alex says:


    I wasn’t being sarcastic, I think the article is quite good. In a short space it does a reasonable job of explaining who Atiyah, Singer, Witten and Higgs are and what they’ve done. It says that the LHC will be used to look for the Higgs boson. It doesn’t say that the LHC will be used to look for evidence of string theory.
    The mistake with the theorem’s name is not a big deal, I imagine Cormac’s guess is not far from the truth. To all but a vanishingly small fraction of humanity “Atiyah-Singer index theorem”, “Atiyah-Singer string index theorem”, “Atiyah-Singer string theorem index”, “Atiyah string singer theorem” etc are all equivalent complicated sounding gobbeldy gook.
    Peter’s conspiracy theory amused me, but the harrumphing from others about “shoddy journalism” and a “gaffe” doesn’t seem to be intended as humour. I think it is likely to convince any journalist reading it that you lot are going to flick peanuts whatever they do.

  12. Peter Woit says:


    The printed version of the article has a sidebar with the headline “How huge is this piece of string?” which repeats the name “Atiyah-Singer String Index Theorem” and describes its significance for math and physics as huge. This wasn’t a typo, it was a misunderstanding based upon being subjected to some of the standard hype about string theory, mathematics and physics. I don’t blame the author of the piece, the problem is the hypsters who are happy to spread this sort of misinformation.

  13. Thomas R Love says:

    Googling ‘Atiyah-Singer String Index Theorem’ yields only one site other than NEW (or references to NEW):

    There is nothing on

    So this nonsense is not widespread.

  14. Benni says:

    By the way Peter, what do you think about the journal “progress of physics”?

    These days, that journal publishes almost only string phenomenology (but sometimes also articles of witten).

    In the early view section

    there is now an article about String theory and the LHC by the journal Editor D. Lüst:

    What do you think of it?

  15. Eric Habegger says:

    “It seems that someone at a local newspaper really wants to get my goat. ”

    Didn’t know you had a goat. It seems very odd for a Columbia professor to have a goat. It must be a very attractive goat. What’s his/her name? Is this some new fashion among the east coast professional elites to acquire goats?

  16. csrster says:

    “It seems that someone at a local newspaper really wants to get my goat. ”

    Don’t worry Peter, I’m sure you’re also getting their goat by referring to them as a local newspaper when they consider themselves a national newspaper. The best way to annoy them is to refer to them by their old name, The Glasgow Herald.

  17. Chris Oakley says:

    Is this some new fashion among the east coast professional elites to acquire goats?

    The latest round of grant cuts have put many academics in the New York area below the poverty line, and without the chickens, pigs and goats they keep they would probably not survive.

  18. Jeff Moreland says:

    I hope you don’t tie your goat up with string.

  19. Coin says:

    I always assumed it would be difficult enough just to keep a dog in Manhattan.

  20. Eric Habegger says:

    The Scotch are big connosoires of goats from way back. A word to the wise: its generally not a good idea to bring your best goats to Scotland. They are known for trying to get it.

  21. Jack Lothian says:

    Eric, my grandmother was very scottish & proud of it & one of her favourite phases to her grandchildren was “you are not scotch you fool, you drink scotch, you are a Scot”. Reading your remark, I could hear her again, accent & all.

  22. Chris Oakley says:

    OK – since we are all in a pedantic frame of mind let me point out that the Scottish – or at least the ones that live in Scotland – never, ever drink “Scotch” although they do drink rather a lot of “Whisky”.

  23. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    No true Scotchman?

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