Singer Birthday Conference

Last weekend I was up in Cambridge attending the conference in honor of Is Singer’s 85th birthday. Singer has had a very long and distinguished career in mathematics, much of it at MIT, where he arrived as one of the first Moore instructors back in 1950. Besides a wide range of purely mathematical contributions, Singer was responsible for bringing together mathematicians (including Atiyah) and physicists starting back in 1976, at first around questions related to instantons. He has run a joint physics and mathematics seminar for about a quarter century, at Berkeley while he was there, then back at MIT. Unfortunately, this past year will have been the last year of the seminar, partly due to Singer’s imminent retirement, partly due to a shift in the interests of Boston area physicists towards phenomenology and away from mathematics.

Jim Simons, an old friend and student of Singer’s, played an important role at the conference, as master of ceremonies at the dinner, and as a financial backer. Back in 1975 it was his lectures to physicists at Stony Brook that got Yang and ultimately Singer interested in the question of the relation of gauge theory to geometry.

While in Cambridge, I picked up a copy of a new book, Recountings, which has interviews with many MIT mathematicians (including Singer), and does a good job of portraying the history of the MIT math department over the past 50 years or so.

Of the conference talks I managed to get to, probably the best was that of Mike Hopkins, who gave a blackboard talk about the Kervaire invariant problem. This one was a lot more accessible than his talk last month at the Atiyah80 conference, where he unveiled his dramatic new results with Hill and Ravenel (more about this story here). In the MIT talk, Hopkins concentrated on explaining the background and significance of the problem, as well as giving some of the philosophy of the proof, which uses what he describes as a “designer” cohomology theory.

Some quick notes on a few of the other talks that I made it to:

  • Atiyah described some of the history of how Singer got him interested in physics, then went on to promote a very speculative idea about a non-local version of the Dirac equation.
  • I can’t say that I really understood Polyakov’s talk, but it was along the lines of this.
  • Cumrum Vafa talked about his local F-theory models and attempts to understand the hierarchy of particle masses this way.
  • Michael Douglas gave a rather odd blackboard talk: no equations, no math, just pretty much straight promotional material about the philosophy of the landscape.
  • Richard Kadison mostly reminisced about working with Singer, leading into a description of what is known as the Kadison-Singer problem.
  • Greg Moore talked about work with Dan Freed and Jacques Distler. You can see their versions of the talk here and here.
  • Wati Taylor gave another landscape talk, similar to the one discussed here.
  • Orlando Alvarez gave a talk about work with Paul Windey, based on this paper.
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    7 Responses to Singer Birthday Conference

    1. Barry Cunningham says:

      I just finished Recountings a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. I attended MIT from 1966-1971 as an undergraduate. I was fascinated to get some insight into what was really going on then and learn some more about some professors I knew (or briefly met), both those directly interviewed (Hartley Rogers, Ken Hoffman, Harvey Greenspan, and Arthur Mattuck) and those they mentioned (e.g., Frank Peterson, George Whitehead, Harvey Friedman, Gerald Sachs, Dave Benney, Dirk Struik).
      I know! Just another old guy reminiscing.

    2. Thomas R Love says:

      Sorry to hear that the Physics-Mathematics seminars will end with Singer’s retirement. I attended 4 quarters of the seminar when it was a Berkeley and it sparked my research on geometry and physics. I left when he started with supersymmetry.

    3. Walter Mondale says:

      It would appear that you are a “math groupie”.

    4. Thomas says:

      Exist texts of Atiyah’s and Hopkin’s talks?

    5. Peter Woit says:


      The talks were being recorded on video, I don’t know if and when this will be publicly available.

    6. Videos of the talks at Atiyah80 are now available from

    7. Peter Woit says:

      Thanks Andrew,

      I’ll add a link to the posting about that conference.