## 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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## Idle questions: Diophantine approximation and complex dynamics

Laura DeMarco gave a beautiful talk at the Joint Meetings about her work (with Matt Baker) on the postcritically finite locus in the moduli space of polynomial dynamical systems.  (Here are her slides for a similar talk.)

To say only a tiny bit about what that means:  The dynamical systems in question are those coming from a polynomial map f: C -> C.  Like, say,

$f(z) = z^2 + c$

for some complex number c.  The set of c such that the forward orbit of 0 stays bounded is the Mandelbrot set – you know, this guy:

One way an orbit to be bounded is for it to be eventually periodic; when z^2 + c has this property, we say it is postcritically finite, or PCF.  More generally, the postcritically finite polynomials are those whose critical points all have finite forward orbits.  Number theorists like these because they’re the ones whose inverse iterates generate big interesting number fields with finite ramification.  But that’s not what I want to mention now.  DeMarco mentioned the very interesting fact (sorry, I don’t know who proved this or whether I’m stating it correctly) that as you range over PCFs with longer and longer period, the set of PCFs approaches the uniform distribution (with respect to a standard measure called bifurcation measure) on the boundary of M.

The PCFs, DeMarco told us, should be thought of as special points in the space of all polynomials — in this simple case of quadratics, the PCFs are special points in the complex plane.  They’re kind of like CM points on the j-line, or torsion points on an abelian variety.  The main thrust of DeMarco’s work with Baker concerns dynamical analogues of the Andre-Oort conjecture, which aims to classify those subvarieties of the moduli space of dynamical systems which contain a (Zariski-)dense set of PCF points.  Their striking results demonstrate the unexpected ways in which arithmetic dynamics and complex dynamics have truly started to engage with each other, after a fairly long period of separate development.

But that’s also not what I want to mention now; I just wanted to record a simple thought that a number theorist might have while watching DeMarco’s talk.  (Warning:  as usual with math posts, this is not thought through carefully.)

The PCF points are perhaps sort of like torsion points in C^*, which is to say roots of unity; and just as PCFs of larger and larger period converge to uniform distribution on the Julia set, roots of unity of larger and larger order converge to uniform distribution on the unit circle.  Equivalently: rational numbers of bounded denominator look roughly uniformly distributed on R/Z.

But there are lots of more refined questions one can ask about the way in which the rational numbers sit densely in R/Z.  For example, one can ask about Diophantine approximation; given an irrational point alpha on R/Z, we know there are infinitely many “pretty good” rational approximants to alpha; fractions p/q such that

$|p/q - \alpha| < 1/q^2$.

Are there theorems guaranteeing that any point x on the boundary of the Mandelbrot set has infinitely many PCFs which are “pretty good approximations” to x in the above sense?

What is the most badly approximable point on the Mandelbrot boundary — i.e what is the “golden dynamical system” that plays the role of (1/2)(1+sqrt(5))?

Does x have a canonical sequence of PCF approximants which play the role of continued fraction convergents?