Various Topics

  • Mathematician Sasha Beilinson has a letter to the editor in this month’s AMS Notices calling on the AMS to sever all ties with the NSA (right now it manages NSA grants, and runs ads from the NSA in the Notices). Beilinson compares the NSA to the KGB of the former Soviet Union. For discussion of the Beilinson letter, see here.
  • Beijing now has a Center for Future High Energy Physics, with Director the ubiquitous Nima Arkani-Hamed. The inaugural conference of the Center will be next month, on Future High Energy Circular Colliders. Nature has an article on the topic this week, Physicists plan to build a bigger LHC, about proposals to build a 100 TeV pp collider, with a possible electron-positron collider Higgs factory using the same tunnel. For the latest on TLEP, the proposal for such a Higgs factory at CERN, see here.
  • I was in London a few days too early for this, but this week the Science Museum there celebrated the opening of its exhibition about the LHC with an event featuring Stephen Hawking. The Guardian has a report here. Hawking seems to think the LHC may see evidence for M-theory:

    “There is still hope that we see the first evidence for M-theory at the LHC particle accelerator in Geneva,” said Hawking. “From an M-theory perspective, the collider only probes low energies, but we might be lucky and see a weaker signal of fundamental theory, such as supersymmetry.

    “I think the discovery of supersymmetric partners for the known particles would revolutionise our understanding of the universe.”

    As is often the case in stories like this, the wording about evidence for string/M-theory is rather odd. We’re told:

    As yet there has been no incontrovertible experimental evidence to show that M-theory is correct.

    but “no incontrovertible experimental evidence” is a peculiar way of phrasing “absolutely zero experimental evidence of any kind whatsoever.”

  • For an interview with Shiraz Minwalla, one of the winners of this year’s Milner prizes for young researchers, see here.
  • Edward Frenkel’s new book, Love and Math, has been getting quite a few good reviews, with the latest from Jim Holt in the New York Review of Books.
  • Finally, your best source of fascinating mathematically-related graphics is surely going to be John Baez’s new Visual Insight blog.

Update: One more. The Perimeter Institute announced yesterday the funding (half provided by the Krembil Foundation) of two new chairs in theoretical physics. These will be held by two young mathematical physicists: Kevin Costello and Davide Gaiotto. As far as I know, the hiring of Costello away from Northwestern is the first time Perimeter has hired someone with a pure mathematics background. It’s good to see them moving in this direction.

Update: More about the new Perimeter chairs here. The article discusses the fact that this is a change of direction towards mathematics:

The choice is a strategic shift and a gamble for the 12-year-old institute, which is in a global tug-of-war for talent and looking to grow its profile as a centre for high-level thinking on some of the deepest questions in the universe.

Although math is the working language of physics and equations cram every available blackboard at Perimeter, Dr. Costello’s hiring, to be announced Saturday, will mark the first time the institute has sought a pure mathematician for its faculty….

“There’s something about the situation in physics today which makes it especially important to bring in high-powered mathematics,” said Neil Turok, the institute’s director.

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13 Responses to Various Topics

  1. jd says:

    Concerning prizes, honors, awards, I recommend David Mermin’s Reference Frame article, Physics Today 42,1,9(1989). This sickness in science has only gotten worse since then.

  2. Lowell Boggs says:

    Sasha Beilinson’s opinions are understandable given his history. But sometimes things are just true without our being able to prove it. Despite valiant failed attempts to prove it, 1 + 1 still remains 2. Similarly, the KGB were the bad guys. The NSA are the good guys. It is just true.

    Yes, we should abandon the bad mathematical theory and practice that the NSA inflicted on the world of security algorithms, but no we shouldn’t take them all out and shoot them. They were trying to prevent terrorism — the loss of life inflicted on innocents by crazy people.

    Do we see large scale theft of financial records because of their actions? N. Do we see good governments toppled? Do we see our personal foibles broadcast on YouTube by the NSA? No. We see Al Quaida disappearing into the backwater of history? Yes.

    Should we applaud the NSA for perpetrating fraud? No. But should we sit around wringing our hands over their lies and improprieties? No. That chapter of their efforts is over. Snowden saw to that. I’m glad he waited so long to render their efforts ineffective. I hope that the NSA are as effective with their future endeavors as they have recently been in protecting me and mine from airplane bombs.

    The NSA are the good guys. They have been doing an excellent job of preventing unnecessary deaths and the hands of lunatics.

    I might not be able to prove this, but it is true.

    I am not a spammer. My opinions are my own and they are heartfelt.

    (By the way, I really love your blog. I am doing my best to keep my mouth shut most of the time.)

  3. Peter Woit says:

    There are many obvious differences between the KGB and the NSA (for one thing, the NSA has technological capabilities the KGB could only dream of…), but please, if you just want to argue that the KGB was bad and the NSA is good (or vice-versa), do this somewhere else. Beilinson is raising a specific issue about the role of the mathematics community in the NSA controversy, and thoughtful discussion of that topic is welcome.

  4. Xu Jia says:

    I really don’t think Nima Arkani-Hamed has any vision on how to explore the very high energy. He doesn’t even have a correct vision on what would be seen @14TeV. The best plan for the future would be Chinese government approves a TLEP Higgs factory and Europe focuses on the high luminosity. This is the only chance that we could see the HHH channel open before 2030, the presence or absence of which would be a huge hint for modelling of the Higgs sector. However, this can not happen because they won’t pay for a ring not bringing a long anticipated Nobel Prize. We should wait for Europe, patiently.

  5. Dave Miller in Sacramento says:


    Strangely enough, had my career taken a slightly different twist, I might have played Ed Snowden’s role: from the mid-eighties through the mid-nineties I worked, for several years as an employee and then as an independent consultant, for a contractor for the intelligence community.. I hope that, if I had ever run into the sort of illegalities that Snowden exposed, I too would have blown the whistle. Fortunately, I didn’t, or I’d now be brushing up on my high-school Russian!

    I’m inclined to agree with Beilinson, though of course even if the AMS accepts his suggestion, the result would only be symbolic.

    It seems to me that any serious discussion of the issue would have to range far beyond intelligence gathering and the NSA per se: if the US is going to pursue the sort of wide-ranging interventionist foreign policy that we have pursued since 1940, then organizations like the NSA are inevitable, and such organizations are inevitably going to cross the line from time to time.

    I doubt you or the AMS wants to get into that sort of debate about long-term US foreign policy!

    I see no way in which either the current AMS policy or the reversal suggested by Beilinson can reasonably be considered neutral. Furthermore, the intelligence community has lots of interesting, decently-paid work for mathematicians and theoretical physicists, and there is no way that they will find a shortage of candidates to fill those positions.

    From all of this, I conclude that the AMS will simply ignore Beilinson’s suggestion.

    But perhaps he will stimulate a few bright people to start thinking seriously about the deeper implications of US foreign policy.


  6. Peter Woit says:


    Sorry, but I’m just going to delete any comments about the NSA issue that aren’t about the relevance to the math (or physics) community. I’m not able or willing to moderate discussions of US foreign policy here.

  7. paddy says:

    Damn..was just about to dig my dog eared copy of Leben des Galilei out of my stacks.

  8. Jim Akerlund says:

    I just read the n-category article and that article raises the issue of NSA/GCHG and them employing mathematicians. But I have also been reading articles of other countries doing smaller versions of the same thing. So, Beilinson raises the concern over what U.S. mathematicans should do, but I am seeing this as more along the lines of what the worlds mathematicians should do in each others respective countries. Maybe if the U.S. mathematicians figure out a cogent response then the rest of the worlds mathematicians can follow along or do something better.

  9. Roger says:

    If the AMS is going to sever ties with the NSA for undermining privacy, then maybe it also ought to cut ties with Google, Facebook, and a long list of others.

  10. Andrea says:

    Just an amusing coincidence, the Hamilton and Galilei chairs will be held by an Irish-born and an Italian respectively.

  11. Don Murphy says:

    Thank you for recommending Edward Frenkel’s book, Love and Math, on this blog a months or so ago. It was uplifting, well written, and very understandable. Even the mathematics presented in the book was clear. It was best book I’ve read of its type and I felt joy at its conclusion. His description in the beginning of the book of how math is generally taught, “What if at school you had to take an “art class” in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso? Would that make you appreciate art? Would you want to learn more about it? I doubt it. You would probably say something like this: “Learning art at school was a waste of my time. If I ever need to have my fence painted, I’ll just hire people to do this for me.” Of course, this sounds ridiculous, but this is how math is taught, and so in the eyes of most of us it becomes the equivalent of watching paint dry. While the paintings of the great masters are readily available, the math of the great masters is locked away.”
    Frenkel, Edward (2013-10-01). Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (p. 1). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

  12. Geoff says:

    There was a discussion not too long ago when some people on this blog seemed skeptical that the NSA was able to recruit people at a very young age, never to be heard from again in the academic community. While that may happen on rare occasions, what seems much more likely is involvement thru the Institute for Defense Analysis:

    Taking a look at where they draw on talent is interesting (anyone from current graduate students, to current as well as emeritus faculty)

    There have been high profile examples of this, not the least of which is this guy:

    And from the computer science side, it appears they were also able to draw on this talent:

    With people like that, and the computational resources at Oak Ridge, I’m pretty sure they could break just about anything.

  13. theon says:

    About mathematics at the PI:
    Psychologists think that the deep problems of physics will be solved by better psychology.
    Philosophers think that the deep problems of physics will be solved by better philosophy.
    Mathematicians think that the deep problems of physics will be solved by better mathematics.
    But I, said the fool, I am a physicist; I think that the deep problems of physics must be solved by better physics.