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: