There’s a fascinating interview with Atiyah and Singer now on-line. It was conducted in May at the time they were awarded the Abel prize. The interview and Atiyah and Singer’s acceptance speeches are also available in video form.
The whole interview is very much worth reading and both Atiyah and Singer make extensive comments about the relation of mathematics and physics. Atiyah makes the provocative prediction that ideas from quantum theory will ultimately have a revolutionary effect on number theory, helping to understand why the Riemann hypothesis or Langlands conjectures are true. He notes that Wiles says this is nonsense. He also predicts that new progress in theoretical physics will come from a better understanding of classical four-dimensional geometry. By this I think he has in mind something like twistor methods. Singer’s comments about string theory are probably typical of the attitude of many mathematicians. He says that, because of the Landscape “you cannot expect to make predictions from string theory. Its inital promise has not been fulfilled”, but he still is an “enthusiastic supporter of superstring theory”, largely because of the interesting mathematics it leads to.
Singer also makes the following sociological comment about mathematics, but I think what he has to say is also very true in physics:
“I observe a trend towards early specialization driven by economic considerations. You must show early promise to get good letters of recommendations to get good first jobs. You can’t afford to branch out until you have established yourself and have a secure position. The realities of life force a narrowness in perspective that is not inherent to mathematics. We can counter too much specialization with new resources that would give young people more freedom than they presently have, freedom to explore mathematics more broadly, or to explore connections with other subjects, like biology these day where there is lots to be discovered.
When I was young the job market was good. It was important to be at a major university but you could still prosper at a smaller one. I am distressed by the coercive effect of today’s job market. Young mathematicians should have the freedom of choice we had when we were young.”
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