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Archive for June, 2012

I presume that a lot of people who drop by this blog are familiar with Doron Zeilberger‘s opinions already. Even though a lot of people who know me personally get linked frequently to some or the other opinions of Zeilberger, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about them in any case, for I believe more people should know about them, even if the number is not high enough.

For a one line introduction, Doron Zeilberger is a noted Israeli mathematician who is presently a professor at Rutgers. He maintains a “blog” which has the title “Dr. Z’s Opinions” in which there are an assortment of views on topics broadly related to Mathematics. Zeilberger certainly has a flair for writing and oftentimes makes hard-hitting points which might outrage many (his latest writing on Turing for example is sure to make many people shake their heads in disagreement – me included) which usually could be seen as chipping away at commonly held opinions. All the interestingness about his opinions aside, his sense of humour makes them entertaining in any case. Even if one disagrees with them I would highly recommend them as long as one exercises some discretion in sifting through these Indiscrete Thoughts.

I found his opinions many years ago while searching for something witty about weekly colloquiums which I could send to some of my colleagues who somehow took pride in not going for them. Skipping colloquiums is a habit that I have not understood well. He wrote the following about it (Opinion 20):

Socrates said that one should always marry. If your spouse would turn out to be nice, then you’ll be a happy person. If your spouse would turn out to be a bitch/bastard, then you’ll become a philosopher.

The same thing can be said about the weekly colloquium. If the speaker is good, you’ll learn something new and interesting, usually outside your field. If the speaker is bad, you’ll feel that you have accomplished something painful, like fasting, or running a marathon, so while you may suffer during the talk, you’ll feel much better after it.

What prompted me to blog about his “blog” was a recent opinion of his. Some months ago when Endre Szemeredi won the Abel Prize, I got very excited, almost like a school boy and the next morning I went to the college library to see what the national dailies had to say about the achievement. To my surprise and dismay none of the dailies seem to have noticed it at all! Three or four days after that the New York Times carried a full page advertisement by Rutgers University having a great photo of Szemeredi, however that doesn’t count as news. I was delighted to see that Doron Zeilberger noticed this too and wrote about it (see his 122nd Opinion)

Let me conclude by wishing Endre, “the computer science professor who never touched a computer”, many more beautiful and deep theorems, and console him (and us) that in a hundred years, and definitely in a thousand years, he would be remembered much more than any contemporary sports or movie star, and probably more than any living Nobel prize winner.

One of my all time favourite opinions of his is Opinion 62, which compares the opposing styles of genius of two men I have had the highest respect for – Israel Gelfand and Alexander Grothendieck. I often send it to people who I think are highly scientifically talented but somehow waste time in expending energy in useless causes than trying to do science (especially if one doesn’t have an intellect comparable to some fraction of Grothendieck’s)! I take the liberty of reproducing the entire opinion here –

I just finished reading Allyn Jackson’s fascinating two-part article about the great mathematical genius Alexandre Grothendieck (that appeared in the Notices of the Amer. Math. Soc.) , and Pierre Cartier’s extremely moving and deep essay `Une pays dont on ne conaitrait que le nom: Le “motifs” de Grothendieck’. (that appeared in the very interesting collection “Le Reel en mathematiques”, edited by P. Cartier and Nathalie Charraud, and that represents the proceedings of a conference about psychoanalysis and math).

In Pierre Cartier’s article, in addition to an attempt at a penetrating “psychoanalysis” he also gives a very lucid non-technical summary of Grothendieck’s mathematical contributions. From this it is clear that one of the greatest giants on whose shoulders Grothendieck stood was Israel Gelfand, whom I am very fortunate to know personally (I am one of the few (too few!) regulars that attend his weekly seminar at Rutgers). I couldn’t help notice the great contrast between these two Giants, and their opposing styles of Genius.

Myself, I am not even an amateaur psychoanalyst, but motives and psi aside, I can easily explain why Grothendieck stopped doing math a long time ago (hence, died, according to Erdos’s nomenclature), while Gelfand, at age 91, is as active and creative as ever.

First and foremost, Grothendieck is a dogmatic purist (like many of the Bourbakists). He dislikes any influences from outside mathematics, or even from other subareas of math. In particular, he always abhored mathematical physics. Ironically, as Cartier explains so well, many major applications of his ground-breaking work were achieved by interfacing it with mathematical physics, in the hands of the “Russian” school, all of whom were disciples of Gelfand. As for Combinatorics, forget it! And don’t even mention the computer, it is du diable. As for Gelfand, he was always sympathetic to all science, even biology! In fact he is also considered a prominent theoretical biologist. Gelfand also realizes the importance of combinatorics and computers.

Also people. Grothendieck was a loner, and hardly collaborated. On the other hand, Gelfand always (at least in the last sixty years) works with other people. Gelfand is also very interested in pedagogy, and in establishing math as an adequate language.

Grothendieck spent a lot of energy in rebellious political causes, probably since in his youth he was an obedient bon eleve. On the other hand, Gelfand was already kicked out of high-school (for political reasons), so could focus all his rebellious energy on innovative math.

So even if you are not quite as smart or original as Gelfand and Grothendieck (and who is?), you will still be able to do math well into your nineties, if you follow Gelfand’s, rather than Grothendieck’s, example.

Zeilberger also seems to have a lot of respect for G. J. Chaitin, something that I certainly find very interesting. I mention this because I have been reading and re-reading Chaitin these days, especially after discovering some of his very recent work on meta-biology.

PS: Zeilgerber was featured in a BBC Documentary on infinity (not a great one, though) in which he talked about his ultrafinitist viewpoint.

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