Archive for the ‘English’ Category

How to start a paper?

October 26, 2022 Leave a comment

Starting a paper is easy. That is, if you don’t care for the marketing, don’t want to be memorable, and just want to get on with the story and quickly communicate what you have proved. Fair enough.

But that only works when your story is very simple, as in “here is a famous conjecture which we solve in this paper”. You are implicitly assuming that the story of the conjecture has been told elsewhere, perhaps many times, so that the reader is ready to see it finally resolved. But if your story is more complicated, this “get to the point” approach doesn’t really work (and yes, I argue in this blog post and this article there is always a story). Essentially you need to prepare the reader for what’s to come.

In my “How to write a clear math paper” (see also my blog post) I recommend writing the Foreword — a paragraph or two devoted to philosophy underlying your work or a high level explanation of the key idea in your paper before you proceed to state the main result:

Consider putting in the Foreword some highly literary description of what you are doing. If it’s beautiful or sufficiently memorable, it might be quoted in other papers, sometimes on a barely related subject, and bring some extra clicks to your work. Feel free to discuss the big picture, NSF project outline style, mention some motivational examples in other fields of study, general physical or philosophical principles underlying your work, etc. There is no other place in the paper to do this, and I doubt referees would object if you keep your Foreword under one page. For now such discussions are relegated to surveys and monographs, which is a shame since as a result some interesting perspectives of many people are missing.

Martin Krieger has a similar idea which he discusses at length in his 2018 AMS Notices article Don’t Just Begin with “Let A be an algebra…” This convinced me that I really should follow his (and my own) advice.

So recently I took a stock of my open opening lines (usually, joint with coauthors), and found a mixed bag. I decided to list some of them below for your amusement. I included only those which are less closely related to the subject matter of the article, so might appeal to broader audience. I am grateful to all my collaborators which supported or at least tolerated this practice.

Combinatorics matters

Combinatorics has always been a battleground of tools and ideas. That’s why it’s so hard to do, or even define.

Combinatorial inequalities (2019)

The subject of enumerative combinatorics is both classical and modern. It is classical, as the basic counting questions go back millennia; yet it is modern in the use of a large variety of the latest ideas and technical tools from across many areas of mathematics. The remarkable successes from the last few decades have been widely publicized; yet they come at a price, as one wonders if there is anything left to explore. In fact, are there enumerative problems that cannot be resolved with existing technology?

Complexity problems in enumerative combinatorics (2018), see also this blog post.

Combinatorial sequences have been studied for centuries, with results ranging from minute properties of individual sequences to broad results on large classes of sequences. Even just listing the tools and ideas can be exhausting, which range from algebraic to bijective, to probabilistic and number theoretic. The existing technology is so strong, it is rare for an open problem to remain unresolved for more than a few years, which makes the surviving conjectures all the more interesting and exciting.

Pattern avoidance is not P-recursive (2015), see also this blog post.

In Enumerative Combinatorics, the results are usually easy to state. Essentially, you are counting the number of certain combinatorial objects: exactly, asymptotically, bijectively or otherwise. Judging the importance of the results is also relatively easy: the more natural or interesting the objects are, and the stronger or more elegant is the final formula, the better. In fact, the story or the context behind the results is usually superfluous since they speak for themselves.

Hook inequalities (2020)

Proof deconstruction

There are two schools of thought on what to do when an interesting combinatorial inequality is established. The first approach would be to treat it as a tool to prove a desired result. The inequality can still be sharpened or generalized as needed, but this effort is aimed with applications as the goal and not about the inequality per se.

The second approach is to treat the inequality as a result of importance in its own right. The emphasis then shifts to finding the “right proof” in an attempt to understand, refine or generalize it. This is where the nature of the inequality intervenes — when both sides count combinatorial objects, the desire to relate these objects is overpowering.

Effective poset inequalities (2022)

There is more than one way to explain a miracle. First, one can show how it is made, a step-by-step guide to perform it. This is the most common yet the least satisfactory approach as it takes away the joy and gives you nothing in return. Second, one can investigate away every consequence and implication, showing that what appears to be miraculous is actually both reasonable and expected. This takes nothing away from the miracle except for its shining power, and puts it in the natural order of things. Finally, there is a way to place the apparent miracle as a part of the general scheme. Even, or especially, if this scheme is technical and unglamorous, the underlying pattern emerges with the utmost clarity.

Hook formulas for skew shapes IV (2021)

In Enumerative Combinatorics, when it comes to fundamental results, one proof is rarely enough, and one is often on the prowl for a better, more elegant or more direct proof. In fact, there is a wide belief in multitude of “proofs from the Book”, rather than a singular best approach. The reasons are both cultural and mathematical: different proofs elucidate different aspects of the underlying combinatorial objects and lead to different extensions and generalizations.

Hook formulas for skew shapes II (2017)

Hidden symmetries

The phrase “hidden symmetries” in the title refers to coincidences between the numbers of seemingly different (yet similar) sets of combinatorial objects. When such coincidences are discovered, they tend to be fascinating because they reflect underlying algebraic symmetries — even when the combinatorial objects themselves appear to possess no such symmetries.

It is always a relief to find a simple combinatorial explanation of hidden symmetries. A direct bijection is the most natural approach, even if sometimes such a bijection is both hard to find and to prove. Such a bijection restores order to a small corner of an otherwise disordered universe, suggesting we are on the right path in our understanding. It is also an opportunity to learn more about our combinatorial objects.

Bijecting hidden symmetries for skew staircase shapes (2021)

Hidden symmetries are pervasive across the natural sciences, but are always a delight whenever discovered. In Combinatorics, they are especially fascinating, as they point towards both advantages and limitations of the tools. Roughly speaking, a combinatorial approach strips away much of the structure, be it algebraic, geometric, etc., while allowing a direct investigation often resulting in an explicit resolution of a problem. But this process comes at a cost — when the underlying structure is lost, some symmetries become invisible, or “hidden”.

Occasionally this process runs in reverse. When a hidden symmetry is discovered for a well-known combinatorial structure, it is as surprising as it is puzzling, since this points to a rich structure which yet to be understood (sometimes uncovered many years later). This is the situation of this paper.

Hidden symmetries of weighted lozenge tilings (2020)

Problems in Combinatorics

How do you approach a massive open problem with countless cases to consider? You start from the beginning, of course, trying to resolve either the most natural, the most interesting or the simplest yet out of reach special cases. For example, when looking at the billions and billions of stars contemplating the immense challenge of celestial cartography, you start with the closest (Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s Star), the brightest (Sirius and Canopus), or the most useful (Polaris aka North Star), but not with the galaxy far, far away.

Durfee squares, symmetric partitions and bounds on Kronecker coefficients (2022)

Different fields have different goals and different open problems. Most of the time, fields peacefully coexist enriching each other and the rest of mathematics. But occasionally, a conjecture from one field arises to present a difficult challenge in another, thus exposing its technical strengths and weaknesses. The story of this paper is our effort in the face of one such challenge.

Kronecker products, characters, partitions, and the tensor square conjectures (2016)

It is always remarkable and even a little suspicious, when a nontrivial property can be proved for a large class of objects. Indeed, this says that the result is “global”, i.e. the property is a consequence of the underlying structure rather than individual objects. Such results are even more remarkable in combinatorics, where the structures are weak and the objects are plentiful. In fact, many reasonable conjectures in the area fail under experiments, while some are ruled out by theoretical considerations.

Log-concave poset inequalities (2021)

Sometimes a conjecture is more than a straightforward claim to be proved or disproved. A conjecture can also represent an invitation to understand a certain phenomenon, a challenge to be confirmed or refuted in every particular instance. Regardless of whether such a conjecture is true or false, the advances toward resolution can often reveal the underlying nature of the objects.

On the number of contingency tables and the independence heuristic (2022)

Combinatorial Interpretations

Finding a combinatorial interpretation is an everlasting problem in Combinatorics. Having combinatorial objects assigned to numbers brings them depth and structure, makes them alive, sheds light on them, and allows them to be studied in a way that would not be possible otherwise. Once combinatorial objects are found, they can be related to other objects via bijections, while the numbers’ positivity and asymptotics can then be analyzed.

What is in #P and what is not? (2022)

Traditionally, Combinatorics works with numbers. Not with structures, relations between the structures, or connections between the relations — just numbers. These numbers tend to be nonnegative integers, presented in the form of some exact formula or disguised as probability. More importantly, they always count the number of some combinatorial objects.

This approach, with its misleading simplicity, led to a long series of amazing discoveries, too long to be recounted here. It turns out that many interesting combinatorial objects satisfy some formal relationships allowing for their numbers to be analyzed. More impressively, the very same combinatorial objects appear in a number of applications across the sciences.

Now, as structures are added to Combinatorics, the nature of the numbers and our relationship to them changes. They no longer count something explicit or tangible, but rather something ephemeral or esoteric, which can only be understood by invoking further results in the area. Even when you think you are counting something combinatorial, it might take a theorem or a even the whole theory to realize that what you are counting is well defined.

This is especially true in Algebraic Combinatorics where the numbers can be, for example, dimensions of invariant spaces, weight multiplicities or Betti numbers. Clearly, all these numbers are nonnegative integers, but as defined they do not count anything per se, at least in the most obvious or natural way.

What is a combinatorial interpretation? (2022)

Covering all bases

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a combinatorial theory is often judged not by its intrinsic beauty but by the examples and applications. Fair or not, this attitude is historically grounded and generally accepted. While eternally challenging, this helps to keep the area lively, widely accessible, and growing in unexpected directions.

Hook formulas for skew shapes III (2019)

In the past several decades, there has been an explosion in the number of connections and applications between Geometric and Enumerative Combinatorics. Among those, a number of new families of “combinatorial polytopes” were discovered, whose volume has a combinatorial significance. Still, whenever a new family of n-dimensional polytopes is discovered whose volume is a familiar integer sequence (up to scaling), it feels like a “minor miracle”, a familiar face in a crowd in a foreign country, a natural phenomenon in need of an explanation.

Triangulations of Cayley and Tutte polytopes (2013)

The problem of choosing one or few objects among the many has a long history and probably existed since the beginning of human era (e.g. “Choose twelve men from among the peopleJoshua 4:2). Historically this choice was mostly rational and random choice was considered to be a bad solution. Times have changed, however. [..] In many cases random solution has become desirable, if not the only possibility. Which means that it’s about time we understand the nature of a random choice.

When and how n choose k (1996)

Books are ideas

In his famous 1906 “white suit” speech, Mark Twain recalled a meeting before the House of Lords committee, where he argued in favor of perpetual copyright. According to Twain, the chairman of the committee with “some resentment in his manner,” countered: “What is a book? A book is just built from base to roof on ideas, and there can be no property in it.

Sidestepping the copyright issue, the unnamed chairman had a point. In the year 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, books are ideas. They come in a variety of electronic formats and sizes, they can be “borrowed” from the “cloud” for a limited time, and are more ephemeral than long lasting. Clinging to the bygone era of safety and stability, we just keep thinking of them as sturdy paper volumes.

When it comes to math books, the ideas are fundamental. Really, we judge them largely based on the ideas they present, and we are willing to sacrifice both time and effort to acquire these ideas. In fact, as a literary genre, math books get away with a slow uninventive style, dull technical presentation, anticlimactic ending, and no plot to speak of. The book under review is very different. [..]

See this books review and this blog post (2021).

Warning: This post is not meant to be a writing advice. The examples I give are merely for amusement purposes and definitely not be emulated. I am happy with some of these quotes and a bit ashamed of others. Upon reflection, the style is overly dramatic most likely because I am overcompensating for something. But hey — if you are still reading this you probably enjoyed it…

How to tell a good mathematical story

March 4, 2021 4 comments

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I was asked to contribute to  to the Early Career Collection in the Notices of the AMS. The paper is not up on their website yet, but I already submitted the proofs. So if you can’t wait — the short article is available here. I admit that it takes a bit of a chutzpah to teach people how to write, so take it as you will.

Like my previous “how to write” article (see also my blog post), this article is mildly opinionated, but hopefully not overly so to remain useful. It is again aimed at a novice writer. There is a major difference between the way fiction is written vs. math, and I am trying to capture it somehow. To give you some flavor, here is a quote:

What kind of a story? Imagine a non-technical and non-detailed version of the abstract of your paper. It should be short, to the point, and straightforward enough to be a tweet, yet interesting enough for one person to want to tell it, and for the listener curious enough to be asking for details. Sounds difficult if not impossible? You are probably thinking that way, because distilled products always lack flavor compared to the real thing. I hear you, but let me give you some examples.

Take Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” written over 2500 years ago. The story would be “A creature born with a gift procrastinated one day, and was overtaken by a very diligent creature born with a severe handicap.” The names of these animals and the manner in which one lost to another are less relevant to the point, so the story is very dry. But there are enough hints to make some readers curious to look up the full story.

Now take “The Terminator”, the original 1984 movie. The story here is (spoiler alert! ) “A man and a machine come from another world to fight in this world over the future of the other world; the man kills the machine but dies at the end.” If you are like me, you probably have many questions about the details, which are in many ways much more exciting than the dry story above. But you see my point – this story is a bit like an extended tag line, yet interesting enough to be discussed even if you know the ending.

Just combinatorics matters

March 29, 2019 3 comments

I would really like everyone to know that every time you say or write that something is “just combinatorics” somebody rolls his eyes.  Guess who?

Here is a short collection of “just combinatorics” quotes.  It’s a followup on my “What is Combinatorics?” quotes page inspired by the “What is Combinatorics?” blog post.

How to write math papers clearly

July 12, 2017 8 comments

Writing a mathematical paper is both an act of recording mathematical content and a means of communication of one’s work.  In contrast with other types of writing, the style of math papers is incredibly rigid and resistant to even modest innovation.  As a result, both goals suffer, sometimes immeasurably.  The clarity suffers the most, which affects everyone in the field.

Over the years, I have been giving advice to my students and postdocs on how to write clearly.  I collected them all in these notes.  Please consider reading them and passing them to your students and colleagues.

Below I include one subsection dealing with different reference styles and what each version really means.  This is somewhat subjective, of course. Enjoy!

4.2. How to cite a single paper. The citation rules are almost as complicated as Chinese honorifics, with an added disadvantage of never being discussed anywhere. Below we go through the (incomplete) list of possible ways in the decreasing level of citation importance and/or proof reliability.

(1) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture in [Roth].” Clear.

(2) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture [Roth].” Roth proved the conjecture, possibly in a different paper, but this is likely a definitive version of the proof.

(3) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture, see [Roth].” Roth proved the conjecture, but [Roth] can be anything from the original paper to the followup, to some kind of survey Roth wrote. Very occasionally you have “see [Melville]”, but that usually means that Roth’s proof is unpublished or otherwise unavailable (say, it was given at a lecture, and Roth can’t be bothered to write it up), and Melville was the first to publish Roth’s proof, possibly without permission, but with attribution and perhaps filling some minor gaps.

(4) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture [Roth], see also [Woolf].” Apparently Woolf also made an important contribution, perhaps extending it to greater generality, or fixing some major gaps or errors in [Roth].

(5) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture in [Roth] (see also [Woolf]).” Looks like [Woolf] has a complete proof of Roth, possibly fixing some minor errors in [Roth].

(6) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture (see [Woolf]).” Here [Woolf] is a definitive version of the proof, e.g. the standard monograph on the subject.

(7) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture, see e.g. [Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Frost].” The result is important enough to be cited and its validity confirmed in several books/surveys. If there ever was a controversy whether Roth’s argument is an actual proof, it was resolved in Roth’s favor. Still, the original proof may have been too long, incomplete or simply presented in an old fashioned way, or published in an inaccessible conference proceedings, so here are sources with a better or more recent exposition. Or, more likely, the author was too lazy to look for the right reference, so overcompensated with three random textbooks on the subject.

(8) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture (see e.g. [Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Frost]).” The result is probably classical or at least very well known. Here are books/surveys which all probably have statements and/or proofs. Neither the author nor the reader will ever bother to check.

(9) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture.7 Footnote 7: See [Mailer].” Most likely, the author never actually read [Mailer], nor has access to that paper. Or, perhaps, [Mailer] states that Roth proved the conjecture, but includes neither a proof nor a reference. The author cannot
verify the claim independently and is visibly annoyed by the ambiguity, but felt obliged to credit Roth for the benefit of the reader, or to avoid the wrath of Roth.

(10) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture.7 Footnote 7: Love letter from H. Fielding to J. Austen, dated December 16, 1975.” This means that the letter likely exists and contains the whole proof or at least an outline of the proof. The author may or may not have seen it. Googling will probably either turn up the letter or a public discussion about what’s in it, and why it is not available.

(11) “Roth proved Murakami’s conjecture.7 Footnote 7: Personal communication.” This means Roth has sent the author an email (or said over beer), claiming to have a proof. Or perhaps Roth’s student accidentally mentioned this while answering a question after the talk. The proof
may or may not be correct and the paper may or may not be forthcoming.

(12) “Roth claims to have proved Murakami’s conjecture in [Roth].” Paper [Roth] has a well known gap which was never fixed even though Roth insists on it to be fixable; the author would rather avoid going on record about this, but anything is possible after some wine at a banquet. Another possibility is that [Roth] is completely erroneous as explained elsewhere, but Roth’s
work is too famous not to be mentioned; in that case there is often a followup sentence clarifying the matter, sometimes in parentheses as in “(see, however, [Atwood])”. Or, perhaps, [Roth] is a 3 page note published in Doklady Acad. Sci. USSR back in the 1970s, containing a very brief outline of the proof, and despite considerable effort nobody has yet to give a complete proof of its Lemma 2; there wouldn’t be any followup to this sentence then, but the author would be happy to clarify things by email.

UPDATE 1. (Nov 1, 2017): There is now a video of the MSRI talk I gave based on the article.

UPDATE 2. (Mar 13, 2018): The paper was published in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. Apparently it’s now number 5 on “Most Popular Papers” list. Number 1 is “My Sets and Sexuality”, of course.

UPDATE 3. (March 4, 2021):  I wrote a followup paper and a blog post titled “How to tell a good mathematical story“, with a somewhat different emphasis.

You say goodbye and I say hello

September 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to write a few posts for a while now, but never could find the time. It really takes special effort to clean your thoughts and then put them in order.  However, the following story just fell into my mailbox.  It tells you how to save time by skipping on the greetings/salutations.  I am removing all math matters and leaving it undedited otherwise.  To protect the anonymity of my correspondent, I will call him “Kiran” throughout the email exhange.  Enjoy!  — IP

(1) [Math] Thanks! — Kiran

(2) Dear Kiran,
[Math] Best, — Igor

P.S. In the future, please address me as “Igor”, which is my first
name. It’s best to begin your email with customary “Dear Igor”.
Thank you.

(3) I’ve been writing emails for 25 years, so I’m not about to start taking advice on how to start them; but if you start a thread to me with “Dear Kiran”, I can be safely counted on to respond in kind for the *first* email in the thread. If it happens enough times, I might even remember to initiate same way. For instance, this is what happens when I exchange emails with Serre; but neither of us uses the salutation on replies after the first within a thread.

[Math] Best, — Kiran

(4) Dear Kiran,
[Math] Best, — Igor

P.S. With all due respect, I am going to continue using salutations
and expecting the same in every email irrespectively on the person or
the count in the thread. Neither the “25 years” nor argumentum ad
verecundiam seem convincing — I have been using email for just as
long and in similar circumstances. The 8 letters of “Dear Igor” is
really not too much to ask.

(5) Thanks, I think this last reference does exactly what I was looking for!

Best, — Kiran

P.S. I have something more to say on the subject of salutations, but since that is a low-priority discussion for me, I will have to put it off until I am more current on my email.

(6) “Dear” Igor,

I promised one more piece of information regarding salutations, so here goes. (Don’t bother replying to this email; I promise to delete the response without reading it!)

I recently had some email exchanges with Shinichi Mochizuki, and was a bit surprised by the fact that despite the fact that I met him more than 20 years ago, he began his email with “Dear Professor [redacted]” (and persisted with this in subsequent replies within the thread). However, when I asked about this, he made it clear that on one hand, he has a policy of using the same format of salutation no matter the recipient (to avoid having to worry about the level of formality, figuring it is safe to err on the side of being too formal sometimes), he has absolutely no expectations about how anyone will address his in response.

My point is that you misuse a certain term here and it’s not the gratituous Latinate rhetorical terminology; it’s the word “respect”. It is a fact that reasonable people can draw different conclusions about such matters as how it is appropriate to start an email. You are free to choose how you address me, but how I choose to structure my correspondence is my decision alone. What you think is “not too much to ask” is for me to keep you in mind as a special case when I don’t even have very much correspondence with you anyway; that’s a waste of mental real estate that I can little afford.

— Kiran