Author Archives: JSE

1,000,000

By the way, sometime yesterday this blog received its millionth visit.

Meeting myself at 17

For something I’m writing I looked up a newspaper article I was interviewed in in, from June 7, 1989.  Here’s what I had to say:

Ellenberg on mathematics: “I always think of it — this is kind of crazy — as a zoo. There are a million different mathematical objects. They are like animals. Some are like each other and some are unalike, and they are all objects . . . . There are things in different guises. The amazing thing is, it all connects. Anything you prove with trig[onometry] is just as true if you do it with algebra . . . . I think it is kind of amazing actually, if you think of it from an emotional point of view.”
On learning math: “My feeling is that a lot of people expect not to be good at math. If you see calculus and trig, to a seventh-grader, they see it as something very difficult and very arcane, when maybe the trick is to relax a little bit . . . . Many things you can understand on two levels. If you look at a novel, a novel can be very hard to interpret, but you can still read it and see what happened. With math, there is no real surface level. It is already written in a sort of obscure language. You don’t have the comforting template. You only have the deep structure, and that can be very off-putting.”
On the practicality of math: “Why is it important to have read any Shakespeare for your everyday life? To tell the truth, I can get through the day without ever using a Shakespeare quote, but I think Shakespeare is useful, and I think math is useful.”

What a strange experience, looking at this.  In a way I seem very mentally disorganized.  But at the same time this is recognizably me.  Unsettling.

Guilt pangs

Not even going to link to this article but this is so magnificently dumb I had to share it with someone.

As everyone knows by now, GM’s entry into the electric car market–the Chevy Volt–costs $41,000 before tax breaks. After the tax breaks, you can happily drive one off the lot for $33,000 … if you can ignore those guilt pangs knowing your fellow Americans have chipped in $8,000 to your new ride.

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Booklist and Kirkus on How Not To Be Wrong

Some good pre-publication reviews are coming in!  From Kirkus:

Witty and expansive, Ellenberg’s math will leave readers informed, intrigued and armed with plenty of impressive conversation starters.

And Booklist (not available online, unfortunately:)

Relying on remarkably few technical formulas, Ellenberg writes with humor and verve as he repeatedly demonstrates that mathematics simply extends common sense. He manages to translate even the work of theoretical pioneers such as Cantor and Gödel into the language of intelligent amateurs. The surprises that await readers include not only a discovery of the astonishing versatility of mathematical thinking but also a realization of its very real limits. Mathematics, as it turns out, simply cannot resolve the real-world ambiguities surrounding the Bush-Gore cliff-hanger of 2000, nor can it resolve the much larger question of God’s existence. A bracing encounter with mathematics that matters.

 

 

 

 

Jordan and the Dream of Rogen

The other night I dreamed I was going into a coffeeshop and Seth Rogen was sitting at an outside table eating a salad.  He was wearing a jeans jacket and his skin was sort of bad.  I have always admired Rogen’s work so I screwed up my courage, went up to his table and said

“Are you…”

And he said, “Yes, I am… having the chef’s salad.  You should try it, it’s great.”

And I sort of stood there and goggled and then he was like, “Yeah, no, yes, I’m Seth Rogen.”

I feel proud of my unconscious mind for producing what I actually consider a reasonably Seth Rogen-style gag!

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Math blog roundup

Lots of good stuff happening in math blogging!

Puzzle: low-height points in general position

I have no direct reason to need the answer to, but have wondered about, the following question.

We say a set of points P_1, \ldots, P_N in \mathbf{A}^2 are in general position if the Hilbert function of any subset S of the points is equal to the Hilbert function of a generic set of |S| points in \mathbf{A}^n.  In other words, there are no curves which contain more of the points than a curve of their degree “ought” to.  No three lie on a line, no six on a conic, etc.

Anyway, here’s a question.  Let H(N) be the minimum, over all N-tuples P_1, \ldots, P_N \in \mathbf{A}^2(\mathbf{Q}) of points in general position, of

\max H(P_i)

where H denotes Weil height.  What are the asymptotics of H(N)?  If you take the N lowest-height points, you will have lots of collinearity, coconicity, etc.  Does the Bombieri-Pila / Heath-Brown method say anything here?

 

 

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Life, friends, was boring. xkcd says so.

From a recent xkcd:

But kids, it’s not true! I was here before there was Internet, and I can tell you, people were not bored more often than they are now, and the boredom was not of a finer and more concentrated quality. The mouse-over text says, in an incredulous tone, “We watched DAYTIME TV. Do you realize how soul-crushing it was? But people still watch daytime TV! Even though there’s the internet! People like daytime TV.

xkcd used to take a slightly different stance on this:

Actually, it’s not clear what stance is being taken here — maybe xkcd really does think nature is of interest only insofar as as it generates ideas for status updates.

The right answer is that xkcd doesn’t think anything at all, because xkcd is a comic strip, whose job is to be funny, not to have consistent principled stances concerning how we have lived and what we should do.  There’s a post I never get around to making about how much I disagree with something in one of Louis CK’s famous bits, and one reason I never make this post is that it’s kind of dumb to argue with a comedy routine, because comedy routines are not arguments.

In conclusion, boredom is a land of contrasts.  John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14″:


 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.


 

God I love this.

 

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Yakov Sinai wins the Abel Prize

And I had the job of delivering, in a format suitable for non-mathematicians, a half-hour summary of Sinai’s work.  A tough task, especially since you can’t ask any experts for help without breaking the secrecy!  I like what Tim Gowers wrote in 2011 about doing the same job the year Milnor won.

I was very happy when I learned (after agreeing to make the presentation) that Sinai had won — mainly for the obvious reason that he’s such a deserving recipient, but selfishly because he didn’t realize either of my main two fears.  On the one hand, I feared that the laureate would be someone whose mathematics was so deeply different from anything I know that I would really struggle to say anything at all that I felt confident was correct.  On the other hand, if the winner were someone in number theory, I would feel an intense responsibility to convey the full picture of the winner’s work and how it fit into the entire sweep of the subject, and I would feel terribly guilty about any simplifications I made, and the thing would be a mess.  As it is, the talk was not exactly easy to prepare but I never worried I actually couldn’t do it.  And I learned a lot!

Anyway, the video of the whole ceremony, including my talk starting at about 9:00, is here.

(Note:  All the sound on this is coming from my mike.  So I know it seems like every joke I crack on here is followed by some seconds of uncomfortable silence, but no, seriously, some people laughed, you just couldn’t hear it!)

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Math Bracket 2014

It’s that time of year again!  Presenting the 2014 math bracket.  School with the best math department wins every game.  As always, all rulings were made by a group, so don’t yell at me if your department loses to one you consider worse.  Also, this year the bracket team was entirely number theorists, so the rankings are no doubt biased to overweight the people we know.  (Previously:  Math Bracket 2013.)

MathBracket2014

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