- The MacArthur Foundation today announced “Genius” grants of $625,000 to 21 people, including two mathematicians, Jacob Lurie and Yitang Zhang. While there was a time these awards often went to mathematicians and theoretical physicists (the 1987 winners included string theorists Dan Friedan, David Gross, John Schwarz and Steve Shenker as well as mathematicians Robert Coleman and David Mumford), that has been much less common in recent years.
Zhang, now a professor at the University of New Hampshire, is a perfect candidate for the award, unrecognized by academia (he worked at a Subway for a while) while he was doing brilliant and important work in number theory. Lurie is undeniably a genius, but kind of the opposite of Zhang, someone whose talents and work have been very well-recognized and rewarded already. He’s a Harvard professor and in November will be collecting a $3 million Milner-Zuckerberg Breakthrough Prize.
The Wall Street Journal leads off their story about this with Lurie, characterizing him as “A mathematician offering his book free on the internet”, implying that’s what distinguished him for the award from the other possible genius candidates:
This year’s winners span in age from 32 to 71 and include nine women and 12 men. A common thread: The winners reach their audiences in surprising places.
“This year, we have several people who one might describe as being engaged to challenge the rest of us to be lifelong learners outside the traditional classroom,” said Cecilia Conrad, who directs the fellows program as a vice president of the foundation. “It’s new solutions to old problems.”
Mathematician Jacob Lurie, who was honored for redefining models in algebraic geometry, negotiated with his publisher to make his book on math principles available for free download on his personal website. While academics sometimes place papers online free, putting a whole book online isn’t yet standard practice, according to the 36-year-old Harvard University professor. “From my point of view, the benefit of writing a book is for people to look at it. I would like as many people as possible to look at it,” he said.
The book in question is the 2009 944 page Higher Topos Theory, available on Lurie’s web-site here. He has just put up on his website an updated version of his second book, the 1178 page Higher Algebra. For those mathematicians worried that they might have trouble reading these because of a lack of physics background, Lurie himself reassures people here that
Since no knowledge of modern physics was required to write any of these books and papers, I can’t imagine that you need any such knowledge to read them.
In other Lurie news, he has also just put up on his web-site an important new paper, a first draft of joint work with Gaitsgory on the proof of Weil’s Tamagawa number conjecture for function fields.
- Skepticism about string theory and the multiverse abounds these days. A wonderful New York Times profile of Peter Higgs ends with
This has led some theorists to propose that our universe is only one in an ensemble of universes, the multiverse, in which the value of things like the Higgs is random.
Asked about that, Dr. Higgs lit up with a big grin. “I’m not a believer,” he said.
“It’s hard enough to have a theory for one universe.”
In Scientific American, George Ellis has a piece entitled Why the Multiverse May Be the Most Dangerous Idea in Physics.
Meanwhile, from a Templeton Foundation-financed conference on the Philosophy of Cosmology in the Canary Islands, Sean Carroll reports via Twitter that string theorist Tom Banks is arguing that “string theory has failed as a theory of our world.”
- Commenter Shantanu pointed out something I hadn’t realized, that David Gross will be here in New York this week, giving talks at NYU. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend, in particular I have to teach at the time of his colloquium on Tuesday. Perhaps someone who can attend will report what he has to say.
In Grothendieck news, the English translation by Melissa Schneps of Winfried Scharlau’s book on the later period of Grothendieck’s life has started to appear, see some chapters here.
A wonderful book of articles about Grothendieck’s mathematics, Alexandre Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait, edited by Leila Schneps, has recently been published (with a version of the articles also available here).
Update: Vigorous back-tweeting (see here, here, here, here and here) now going on from Sean Carroll and Tom Banks. Admitting that string theory unification has failed is just not done. Revised and extended remarks from Tom Banks add praise for the greatness of string theory and avoid the word “failure”:
Without string theory we would never have been in a position to understand anything serious about quantum gravity, but without going beyond the present understanding of string theory we can make no further progress.
This still though reads as “string theory is at a dead end”. Sean echoes the praise:
conventional string theory has given us enormous guidance toward quantum gravity.
and dismisses the failure issue as something obvious and not worth mentioning:
Need to go beyond is obvious.
I guess I should point out that it is not obvious that you need to go “beyond” string theory, in the sense of farther in the same direction. Might be that you need to abandon the direction that led you to a dead end, back-track, and try a different one.
Strange thing is that this discussion of a string theory dead end just seems to be about problems using string theory to do quantum gravity when there’s a positive cosmological constant (otherwise, according to Carroll, “String theory is great”). The idea of string unification seems to be so dead it’s not even worth mentioning.
Update: Shaun Hotchkiss has the latest news on Planck/BICEP2 and dust here. People are still scraping data off old Planck slides, with real Planck data on the BICEP2 patch rumored to be imminent for the past month or so:
Any day now we are to expect Planck’s paper revealing the non-conference-talk maps of the high frequency polarisation signal along BICEP2’s line of sight. These will just be images though, not raw data. The word on the street/corridor is that a fully written draft exists and has clearance to be submitted and nobody I’ve spoken to knows why it hasn’t been. The sort of phrases I’ve heard about what to expect from this is that “it will clarify a lot of things”, but “it won’t be conclusive”.
Update: Two more. I’ve been avoiding writing about the AMS-02 announcement about the positron excess, waiting to hear something sensible about its significance. Resonaances is on the job, giving an interesting take on the data, and claiming this has nothing to do with dark matter.
There’s a nice profile of Robbert Dijkgraaf here.