The January Notices of the AMS is out. Two quite interesting articles, one of which is an interview with my colleague Joan Birman. She just recently officially retired, but, at the age of 79 is still very active in research and a major presence in the department, an example to us all. The second is an article by Anatoly Vershik about the Clay Millenium Prizes. Vershik argues that these million dollar prizes are not good for mathematics, and that the story of the proof of the Poincare conjecture shows why. Top mathematicians who think they have a chance of solving one of the Clay problems are going to work on them whether or not the prize exists (the money certainly didn’t motivate Perelman). The prizes give the public a deformed view of what is important about mathematics and encourage unseemly squabbling about how “credit” for a solution will be assigned. Vershik writes:
In my opinion, all this clamor and fuss show that this method of promoting mathematics is warped and unacceptable, it does not popularize mathematics as a science, on the contrary, it only bewilders the public and leads to unhealthy interest.
There’s an excellent article about James Clerk Maxwell in the December Physics World. It’s the 175th anniversary of Maxwell’s birth this year. He lived only to age 48, dying in 1879. The author of the article speculates that “Had he not died so young, Maxwell would almost certainly have developed special relativity a decade or more before Einstein.”
For an update on the US federal budget situation for science, see this AAAS web-page. As far as I can tell, the situation is that (as often happens) the Congress has not yet passed FY2007 appropriations for most of the government, including the DOE and NSF, even though we’re now more than a couple months into the fiscal year. As a result, these agencies are operating under a continuing resolution, without access to the increased funds that were supposed to flow because of the “American Competitiveness Initiative”. The new Congress will have to deal with this after it convenes in January, and news reports I heard today said that Congressional leaders were considering not producing new appropriations bills but running the government on a continuing resolution for the rest of FY2007. Unclear to me what this means for science funding, but it doesn’t sound good. Over the next few years, if the new Democratic Congress makes a serious effort to bring the US federal budget deficit under control, science funding may be under pressure.
At the Scientific American blog, J R Minkel has a story called Comic Books Looove String Theory, about developments in the Ex Machina comic, which is about “a retired semi-super hero turned Mayor of New York City who can control machines with his mind.” In issue 10 a lunatic starts ranting
It’s not about the branes, it’s about the bulk. You were supposed to tell people… Witten is close, but we’re closer.
Minkel doesn’t mention the recent string theory themes in Zippy the Pinhead.
Witten’s new paper with Gukov mentioned here is now available. It is about 160 pages long and generalizes the earlier Kapustin-Witten paper to the ramified case. This involves constructing “surface operators” in the 4d gauge theory, operators attached to surfaces in much the same way ‘t Hooft operators are attached to curves. Unfortunately it doesn’t discuss connections to Khovanov homology that Gukov described in his Strings 2006 talk “Surface Operators in Gauge Theory and Categorification” (I’d provide a link, but the Strings 2006 site seems to be down). The authors also note that Frenkel and Gaitsgory have a “unified approach” to this ramified case, but that “Unfortunately, we make contact here neither with the use of conformal field theory nor with this unified statement. We hope, of course, to eventually understand more.” So, there’s lots more to do…
If you want to get an idea of what it costs to run a theoretical physics center, check out the report of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. The interim director of the MCTP is Gordon Kane, and they will be hosting a symposium next month to celebrate his 70th birthday.
Over at Cosmic Variance, there’s a discussion of the new Martin Scorsese film String Kings, which features “a scene showing work on an extension of the New Jersey turnpike, involving string henchmen (disguised with hard hats and overalls) a large cement truck and Peter Woit.” I guess this doesn’t seem like such a great plot idea to me for some reason. Personally I’ve been thinking that the whole recent controversy over string theory would make a great comic novel. The thing to do is to somehow get David Lodge interested…
Update: The Strings 2006 site is back up, and the Gukov talk mentioned is here.