Things That Deserve (but won’t get) Longer Blog Postings

Here’s a selection of news that deserves longer blog postings that, for one reason or another, I’m unable or unwilling to provide…

  • This year’s Abel Prize goes to John Milnor. With an excellent blog posting about this from Fields Medalist Tim Gowers, why should I try and compete?
  • I’ve been waiting for the US budget situation to clarify before writing about its implications for physics and math research, but it looks like that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The US Congress is now engaged in a bizarre and irresponsible exercise of trying to run the country by each week fighting over not next year’s budget, not next quarter’s, not next month’s, but next week’s. At the moment there’s a budget for the next week and a half, but no one seems to know what will happen after this. The president has issued a proposed FY2012 budget, but there’s no reason to believe it will have anything to do with whatever the reality of funding later this year turns out to be. Trying to make plans and run a large laboratory like Fermilab under these conditions must be a nightmare. Last week there was a HEPAP meeting in Washington, with presentations that explain the current situation. A good excuse for not writing more about the future implications of federal funding decisions is that no one is actually making such decisions.
  • Last week Langlands supposedly gave a talk at the IAS, On Functoriality; on the Correspondence; and on Their Relation, Part I (I’m not sure if or when there will be a Part II). I wasn’t able to attend, but perhaps video will someday be available. Langlands provides a link to a document of “work in progress” entitled Functoriality and Reciprocity. In it, he gives his reflections on the current state of attempts to precisely formulate and understand the conjectures generally referred to as “Langlands functoriality” and the “Langlands Correspondence” (or “Langlands reciprocity”). These conjectures come in versions for algebraic number fields, function fields, and so-called “geometric Langlands” over the complex numbers, in each case in local and global versions.

    Much of the document consists of Langland’s description of his struggle to understand some issues in the geometric Langlands story, including the work of Witten and collaborators relating this to 4 and 6d quantum field theories. Another topic is that of the Abelian theory, and attempts to understand it locally. A very good reason to not write more about this is that I don’t understand it very well, although, paradoxically, I find Langlands writing about what confuses him rather easier to follow than when he writes about what he has completely understood. Another good reason is that I’m busily learning more about some of this, and maybe someday I’ll be less confused and able to write something more sensible here.

  • Also from the IAS, there’s video of a talk by Arkani-Hamed to the mathematicians available here, about work on scattering amplitudes. I’m curious to know what they made of it.
  • Also on the Langlands front, again in a category of things I don’t understand well enough to write more about, see this new Seminaire Bourbaki report on the Fundamental Lemma from Thomas Hales.
  • Update: There’s a Newsday story about Milnor here, unfortunately only the first bit is free. He explains what he is going to do with the million bucks: buy more leg-room on airplane flights (he’s 6’3″).

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    9 Responses to Things That Deserve (but won’t get) Longer Blog Postings

    1. fatdog says:

      A semi-serious meta-mathematical question: is it possible to write more pompously than Langlands does? Is Langlands as pompous and condescending in person as he is in print? While he somehow manages to write clearly, and he clearly writes deeply, his tone almost makes the readable intolerable. It’s like a movie caricature of a self-important professor.

    2. dogfat says:

      Pomposity is a point of view. I am sure the perspective is different if one is offering the benefit of one’s years of hard-won accumulated wisdom to the unwashed masses.

      I see that this post has undergone numerous deletions of comments. Add this and previous the list … asap!

    3. Peter Woit says:


      I’ve deleted various off-topic comments, these are at least on-topic, although I really don’t like the use of anonymous comments to personally criticize people, and this comes awfully close to that. I probably should delete the exchange, but I do think the question of Langlands’s somewhat unusual writing style is an interesting one.

      I don’t think “pompous and condescending” are accurate descriptions of this. He often is giving opinions, in ways that are not conventional for mathematical writing. Usual standards require this sort of thing to be rigorously suppressed, for good reasons: in a scientific paper you want facts, not opinions. But Langlands has got the track record to make his opinions worth hearing, no matter how they come off.

      I’ve no personal experience interacting with him, and sometimes found his writing style odd, but not really off-putting. The one thing he does I find hard to justify is his choice to sometimes write not in his native language (he has quite a few papers written in French, and German, and is also known to write in Turkish). I found his extensive autobiographical comments you can find here

      quite fascinating, and they also give some insight into how he came to love erudition and thus explain a bit of the style and use of other languages.

    4. Jeff says:

      Well, as a data point, I was once informed by the chair of a Research I math department that he had read a number of recommendation letters from Langlands, and in each of them the only thing Langlands talked about was how the applicant had contributed or not to the Langlands program. No general discussion of their mathematical ability at all.

    5. Kea says:

      Well, I actually met Langlands once, some years ago now, and I thought he was interesting and friendly.

    6. Bugsy says:

      Peter, thanks as usual for all the links and observations. I have to say I found fatdog’s comments equally stupid and offensive. Being not at all in Langland’s area, I began with the autobiographical interview and proceeded to
      the recent paper, skimming both, just to get an impression. What is that? Of a thoughtful, erudite, creative and intellectually curious mind, who is genuinely trying to communicate something of value.
      I didn’t pick up a mote of arrogance or condescension, to the contrary I found the style refreshingly literate for a mathematician. Just because someone (in this case from an older generation) does know how to use the English language doesn’t mean we should feel bound to insult them. In other cultures age and concomitant deep experience are met with respect: our eyes open wider, and shine from the privilege of the encounter….

    7. Shantanu says:

      Peter or others, have you heard any assessment of reports on how the earthquake in Japan is going to affect ongoing HEP(mainly neutrino) experiments in Japan and implications for near term future?

    8. lun says:

      I would be very interested in your opinion of the colloqium today at Columbia University, if you happened to attend it.

      It seems to concern several of the issues you most often write about in a very succint way

    9. Peter Woit says:


      Yes, I was there (Arkani-Hamed colloquium on scattering amplitudes here at Columbia, somewhat like the IAS talk mentioned in this posting).

      Personally, I found it a mixed bag: about an hour of very interesting results and ideas about scattering amplitudes in N=4 super Yang-Mills, explained well, prefaced by a tedious half an hour of unconvincing arguments and ridiculous hype. He seemed to have planned to give at least an hour and a half talk, even though it was scheduled for an hour, which struck me as rather rude, especially since skipping the first half-hour would have improved the talk a lot.

      As he said at the beginning, this is work in progress. This has been an active area of research for several years, and it’s not clear where it’s going. That will be really interesting to see in the future. The impressive results he described are only about N=4 SYM in the planar approximation. One question is how widely these techniques can be applied to other theories, the other is whether they will lead to a fundamentally different theory, and if so, what it will look like. I’m a fan of twistor geometry, and I think it’s great to see people doing something new with it.

      On the other hand, I don’t see how this yet shows any signs of solving any of the fundamental problems of how to get beyond the standard model and how to unify it with gravity. What’s there now, impressive as it is, just didn’t seem to me to support the grandiose hype that made up a big part of the talk.

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