Category Archives: opinions

How to succeed

My new kitten is a highly successful cat — at least he’s successful against me. To find the silver lining in my defeat, I’ve been cataloging the secrets of his success. They turn out, with minimal translation, to be valid advice for mathematicians or, really, for anyone.

  1. If you’re being dragged away, concentrate on what you can take with you.
  2. Don’t worry for a second about how failing makes you look.
  3. If the direct approach is being guarded, try cozying up to your target gradually.
  4. Always have two projects on the go: if one is being guarded, the other may not be.
  5. Be ready to eat anything.
  6. Keep to a schedule.
  7. Patrol regularly for opportunities.

The most powerful secret is not available to the rest of us.

  1. Be charming in the way only a cat can be.

And some probably aren’t good advice.

  1. Always attack people wiping something with a paper towel.

Photo: Mackey Functor at five months, 6 lbs 3 oz.

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March for Science

The March for Science will be on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 2017, in 605 cities across the U.S. and beyond. Come out and march for truth against lies! Check out the web site for details of the march in your city. I’ll be marching in Houston.

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Defend freedom

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is more important than ever now. If you can afford to, support the ACLU’s efforts by donating and/or joining.

Several tech executives are offering to match donations, so this can be a way to multiply the effect of yours. 5 Feb update: Here is a compiled list that appears to be up to date.

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Why I like the spin group / New paper: Essential dimension of the spin groups in characteristic 2

9df3daf31bf116de8c6d6bdddff66a7fjpg Mathematics is about rich objects as well as big theories. This post is about one of my favorite rich objects, the spin group, inspired by my new paper Essential dimension of the spin groups in characteristic 2. What I mean by “rich” is being simple enough to be tractable yet complicated enough to exhibit interesting behavior and retaining this characteristic when viewed from many different theoretical angles.

Other objects in mathematics are rich in this way. In algebraic geometry, K3 surfaces come to mind, and rich objects live at various levels of sophistication: the Leech lattice, the symmetric groups, E8, the complex projective plane,…. I’d guess other people have other favorites.

Back to spin. The orthogonal group is a fundamental example in mathematics: much of Euclidean geometry amounts to studying the orthogonal group O(3) of linear isometries of R3, or its connected component, the rotation group SO(3). The 19th century revealed the striking new phenomenon that the group SO(n) has a double covering space which is also a connected group, the spin group Spin(n). That story probably started with Hamilton’s discovery of quaternions (where Spin(3) is the group S3 of unit quaternions), followed by Clifford’s construction of Clifford algebras. (A vivid illustration of this double covering is the Balinese cup trick.)

In the 20th century, the spin groups became central to quantum mechanics and the properties of elementary particles. In this post, though, I want to focus on the spin groups in algebra and topology. In terms of the general classification of Lie groups or algebraic groups, the spin groups seem straightforward: they are the simply connected groups of type B and D, just as the groups SL(n) are the simply connected groups of type A. In many ways, however, the spin groups are more complex and mysterious.

One basic reason for the richness of the spin groups is that their smallest faithful representations are very high dimensional. Namely, whereas SO(n) has a faithful representation of dimension n, the smallest faithful representation of its double cover Spin(n) is the spin representation, of dimension about 2n/2. As a result, it can be hard to get a clear view of the spin groups.

For example, to understand a group G (and the corresponding principal G-bundles), topologists want to compute the cohomology of the classifying space BG. Quillen computed the mod 2 cohomology ring of the classifying space BSpin(n) for all n. These rings become more and more complicated as n increases, and the complete answer was an impressive achievement. For other cohomology theories such as complex cobordism MU, MU*BSpin(n) is known only for n at most 10, by Kono and Yagita.

In the theory of algebraic groups, it is especially important to study principal G-bundles over fields. One measure of the complexity of such bundles is the essential dimension of G. For the spin groups, a remarkable discovery by Brosnan, Reichstein, and Vistoli was that the essential dimension of Spin(n) is reasonably small for n at most 14 but then increases exponentially in n. Later, Chernousov and Merkurjev computed the essential dimension of Spin(n) exactly for all n, over a field of characteristic zero.

Even after those results, there are still mysteries about how the spin groups are changing around n = 15. Merkurjev has suggested the possible explanation that the quotient of a vector space by a generically free action of Spin(n) is a rational variety for small n, but not for n at least 15. Karpenko’s paper gives some evidence for this view, but it remains a fascinating open question. The spin groups are far from yielding up all their secrets.

Image is a still from The Aristocats (Disney, 1970). Recommended soundtrack: Cowcube’s Ye Olde Skool.

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Book review: The Serre–Tate correspondence

This is not Serre's catFor the past month I’ve been punctuating my life by reading the correspondence between Jean-Pierre Serre and John Tate, recently published in two volumes. Anyone interested in the development of number theory and algebraic geometry will find something to enjoy here.

The book was presumably suggested by the success of the Grothendieck–Serre correspondence, published by the Société Mathématique de France in 2001 and in English translation by the American Mathematical Society in 2003. The Grothendieck–Serre correspondence, beyond its outstanding mathematical interest, has the additional personal fascination of Grothendieck’s story. At first a complete outsider to algebraic geometry, he becomes the master builder of the subject in the 1960s, before rejecting mathematics and, by the end, the rest of humanity.

By comparison, Serre and Tate are reasonable men. The attraction of their correspondence lies in the mathematical ideas that they gradually develop, over the years from 1956 to 2009. Some of the key topics are Galois cohomology (essentially created by Serre and Tate), Tate’s notion of rigid analytic spaces, the Tate conjecture on algebraic cycles, Tate’s invention of p-adic Hodge theory, and Serre’s work on the image of Galois representations, for example for elliptic curves.

Serre usually writes in French, and Tate in English; but both writers make occasional use of the other language for the fun of it.

One running theme is Tate’s reluctance to write up or publish some of his best work. Serre encourages Tate and edits Tate’s papers, but sometimes has to concede defeat. Mazur and Serre started to prepare the publication of Tate’s Collected Papers in about 1990, which would include letters and unpublished work; sadly, nothing has appeared. Serre reports that the AMS has revived the project, and concludes: “I cross my fingers.”

A major topic of the correspondence starting in the 1970s is the relation between modular forms and Galois representations. Deligne and Serre showed in 1974 that a modular form of weight 1 determines a Galois representation with image a finite subgroup of PGL(2,C). At that time, however, it was a serious computational problem to give any example at all of a modular form of weight 1 for which the image is an “interesting” subgroup (that is, A4, S4, or A5, not a cyclic or dihedral group). Tate and a group of students found the first example on June 21, 1974. Soon Tate becomes fascinated with the HP25 programmable calculator as a way to experiment in number theory.

Both Serre and Tate are strongly averse to abstract theories unmoored to explicit examples, especially in number theory. This is a very attractive attitude, but it had one unfortunate effect. One of Serre’s best conjectures, saying that odd Galois representations into GL(2) of a finite field come from modular forms, was formulated in letters to Tate in 1973. But for lack of numerical evidence, Serre ended up delaying publication until 1987. The conjecture played a significant role in the lines of ideas leading to Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Serre’s Conjecture was finally proved by Khare and Wintenberger.

Finally, the correspondence has its share of mathematical gossip. One memorable incident is the Fields Medals of 1974. Tate is on the Fields Medal committee, and Serre suggests “Manin-Mumford-Arnold” as not a bad list, with Arnold as the strongest candidate outside number theory and algebraic geometry. In the event, the award went only to two people, Bombieri and Mumford. At least in the case of Arnold, it seems clear (compare this MathOverflow question) that this was a disastrous result of official anti-Semitism in the USSR, with the Soviet representative to the International Mathematical Union, Pontryagin, refusing to allow the medal to go to Arnold.

I hope that some mathematical readers will go on from the Serre–Tate correspondence to Serre’s Collected Papers. Serre took the idea of cohomology from topology into algebraic geometry and then into number theory. He is one of the finest writers of mathematics. I recommend his papers without reservation.

Correspondance Serre–Tate, 2 volumes. Editée par Pierre Colmez et Jean-Pierre Serre. Société Mathématique de France (2015).

Photo was from the Cambridge branch of Cats Protection, but a different cat is now featured.


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Favorite Christmas movies

Nora and Nick Charles in The Thin Man

This week Town Topics asked Princetonians on the street to name their favorite Christmas movies. The results were infuriatingly dull. As a public service, here is a list of the favorite Christmas movies in my household.

The Thin Man
Remember the Night
Christmas in July
Enemy of the State
The Royal Tenenbaums
Auntie Mame
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
My Night at Maud’s

Nick Smith in Metropolitan


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Exceptional Lie Groups, Ranked

5. E7

4. E6

3. G2

2. F4

1. E8

Update (28 July 2016): The rankings of E7 and E6 should be switched. E6 is the worst least good exceptional Lie group.

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Why believe the Hodge Conjecture?

Tom Graber recently asked me why people believe the Hodge conjecture, given the sparse evidence for its truth. I didn’t have time then to answer fully (I was giving a talk), but it’s a question that deserves a full answer. So I’ve sketched below what I feel are the reasons for believing the Hodge conjecture.

The Hodge conjecture is perhaps the most famous problem in algebraic geometry. But progress on the Hodge conjecture is slow, and a lot of algebraic geometry goes in different directions from the Hodge conjecture. Why should we believe the Hodge conjecture? How important will it be to solve the problem?

The Hodge conjecture is about the relation between topology and algebraic geometry. The cohomology with complex coefficients of a smooth complex projective variety splits as a direct sum of linear subspaces, the Hodge decomposition H i(X,C) = Σj = 0i H j,i-j(X). The cohomology class of a complex subvariety of codimension p lies in the middle piece H p,p(X) of H 2p(X,C). The Hodge conjecture asserts that any element of H 2p(X,Q) which lies in the middle piece of the Hodge decomposition is the class of an algebraic cycle, meaning a Q‑linear combination of complex subvarieties.

The main evidence for the Hodge conjecture is the Lefschetz (1,1)-theorem, which implies the Hodge conjecture for codimension-1 cycles. Together with the hard Lefschetz theorem, this also implies the Hodge conjecture of cycles of dimension 1. These results are part of algebraic geometers’ good understanding of line bundles and codimension-one subvarieties.

Not much is known about the Hodge conjecture in other cases, starting with 2‑cycles on 4‑folds. For example, it holds for uniruled 4‑folds (Conte-Murre, 1978). That includes 4‑fold hypersurfaces of degree at most 5, but the Hodge conjecture remains unknown for smooth 4‑fold hypersurfaces of degree at least 6. Why should we believe the conjecture?

One reason to believe the Hodge conjecture is that it suggests a close relation between Hodge theory and algebraic cycles, and this hope has led to a long series of discoveries about algebraic cycles. For example, Griffiths used Hodge theory to show that homological and algebraic equivalence for algebraic cycles can be different. (That is, an algebraic cycle with rational coefficients can represent zero in cohomology without being connected to zero through a continuous family of algebraic cycles.) Mumford used Hodge theory to show that the Chow group of zero-cycles modulo rational equivalence can be infinite-dimensional. There are many more discoveries in the same spirit, many of them summarized in Voisin’s book Hodge Theory and Complex Algebraic Geometry.

Another reason for hope about the Hodge conjecture is that it is part of a wide family of conjectures about algebraic cycles. These conjectures add conviction to each other, and some of them have been proved, or checked for satisfying families of examples.

The closest analog is the Tate conjecture, which describes the image of algebraic cycles in etale cohomology for a smooth projective variety over a finitely generated field, as the space of cohomology classes fixed by the Galois group. The Tate conjecture is not known even for codimension-1 cycles. But Tate proved the Tate conjecture for codimension-1 cycles on abelian varieties over finite fields. Faltings proved the Tate conjecture for codimension-1 cycles on abelian varieties over number fields by a deep argument, part of his proof of the Mordell conjecture. An important piece of evidence for the Hodge conjecture is Deligne’s theorem that Hodge cycles on abelian varieties are “absolute Hodge”, meaning that they satisfy the arithmetic properties (Galois invariance) that algebraic cycles would satisfy. This means that the Hodge and Tate conjectures for abelian varieties are closely related.

The Tate conjecture belongs to a broad family of conjectures about algebraic cycles in an arithmetic context. These include the Birch–Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture, on the arithmetic of elliptic curves, and a vast generalization, the Bloch–Kato conjecture on special values of zeta functions. One relation among these conjectures is that the Birch–Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture for elliptic curves over global fields of positive characteristic is equivalent to the Tate conjecture for elliptic surfaces, by Tate. Some of the main advances in number theory over the past 30 years, by Kolyvagin and others, have proved the Birch–Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture for elliptic curves over the rationals of analytic rank at most 1.

The Hodge conjecture belongs to several other families of conjectures. There is Bloch’s conjecture that the Hodge theory of an algebraic surface should determine whether the Chow group of zero cycle is finite-dimensional. There is the Beilinson–Lichtenbaum conjecture, recently proved by Voevodsky and Rost, which asserts that certain motivic cohomology groups with finite coefficients map isomorphically to etale cohomology.

This web of conjectures mutually support each other. Mathematicians continually make progress on one or the other of them. Trying to prove them has led to a vast amount of progress in number theory, algebra, and algebraic geometry. For me, this is the best reason to believe the Hodge conjecture.


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I am not a radical, but I am boycotting Elsevier

I’ve signed the Elsevier boycott declaration at the costofknowledge site inspired by Tim Gowers’ blog post on the many problems with Elsevier’s behavior.

I am not a publishing reform radical. I value the traditional model of subscription journal publishing and have invested time and effort in making peer review work.* I suspect that lots of people in similar positions are among the majority of mathematicians who have not signed the boycott declaration yet.

So, why do I think we should boycott Elsevier?

The mathematical scholarly community operates under a strong social compact — this is one reason so many of us do so much for free. With very rare exceptions, mathematicians hold themselves to a higher standard than the minimal criterion of what they can get away with. So should the publishers we deal with. Scholarly society and university press publishers, for the most part, do. Springer used to but is in transition. Elsevier does not. Elsevier has demonstrated again and again that it will cross the boundaries of acceptable behavior on pricing, on editorial integrity, on legislative lobbying.

None of what Elsevier does is illegal. There is no law against running a journal as Chaos, Solitons and Fractals was run. There is no law against political donations to elected officials who bring forward advantageous legislation. There is, apparently, no law against bundling and ruthless pricing that produces a profit margin in line with what monopolies achieve.

There is, however, social sanction — if we’ll use it. I won’t deal with Elsevier as if it’s part of the mathematical community when it shows little commitment to the standards of behavior that membership implies.

*I was co-editor of Proceedings of the LMS from 2003 to 2008, and am currently a managing editor of Compositio Mathematica.


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Why you should care about positivity

I started this blog about a year ago briefly recommending Rob Lazarsfeld’s book Positivity in Algebraic Geometry, which gives bite-size treatments of many topics hard to find elsewhere.

I’d like to make a stronger case now because it’s an important book. People often give me credit for knowing a lot just because I know what’s in it. It’s rarely on my shelves because it’s almost always in a stack near where I’m working. When I lost my copies in transit between MSRI and Cambridge, I replaced them immediately.*

The title might sound, on the face of it, like something specialized or technical. In fact, positivity is arguably the fundamental difference between algebraic geometry and topology. For example, the intersection multiplicity of two distinct complex curves which meet at a point in a complex algebraic surface S is always positive. As a result, if you know the homology classes of the two curves, then you know the total intersection number N from the cohomology ring of S, and that implies that the “physical” number of intersection points is at most N. This is completely false in topology: you can push around one submanifold to meet another submanifold in as many points as you like. The result is that just knowing the homology class of an algebraic curve controls its geometric properties (it can’t wiggle too much). Much of algebraic geometry builds on this kind of rigidity.

*Not at all painful because Lazarsfeld insisted Springer publish in paperback and keep the price down. Losing Kollár’s Rational Curves on Algebraic Varieties, on the other hand…


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