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The problem with combinatorics textbooks

July 3, 2021 Leave a comment

Every now and then I think about writing a graduate textbook in Combinatorics, based on some topics courses I have taught. I scan my extensive lecture notes, think about how much time it would take, and whether there is even a demand for this kind of effort. Five minutes later I would always remember that YOLO, deeply exhale and won’t think about it for a while.

What’s wrong with Combinatorics?

To illustrate the difficulty, let me begin with two quotes which contradict each other in the most illuminating way. First, from the Foreword by Richard Stanley on (his former student) Miklós Bóna’s “A Walk Through Combinatorics” textbook:

The subject of combinatorics is so vast that the author of a textbook faces a difficult decision as to what topics to include. There is no more-or-less canonical corpus as in such other subjects as number theory and complex variable theory. [here]

Second, from the Preface by Kyle Petersen (and Stanley’s academic descendant) in his elegant “Inquiry-Based Enumerative Combinatorics” textbook:

Combinatorics is a very broad subject, so the difficulty in writing about the subject is not what to include, but rather what to exclude. Which hundred problems should we choose? [here]

Now that this is all clear, you can probably insert your own joke about importance of teaching inclusion-exclusion. But I think the issue is a bit deeper than that.

I’ve been thinking about this when updating my “What is Combinatorics” quotation page (see also my old blog post on this). You can see a complete divergence of points of view on how to answer this question. Some make the definition or description to be very broad (sometimes even ridiculously broad), some relatively narrow, some are overly positive, while others are revoltingly negative. And some basically give up and say, in effect “it is what it is”. This may seem puzzling, but if you concentrate on the narrow definitions and ignore the rest, a picture emerges.

Clearly, these people are not talking about the same area. They are talking about sub-areas of Combinatorics that they know well, that they happen to learn or work on, and that they happen to like or dislike. Somebody made a choice what part of Combinatorics to teach them. They made a choice what further parts of Combinatorics to learn. These choices are increasingly country or culture dependent, and became formative in people’s mind. And they project their views of these parts of Combinatorics on the whole field.

So my point is — there is no right answer to “What is Combinatorics?“, in a sense that all these opinions are biased to some degree by personal education and experience. Combinatorics is just too broad of a category to describe. It’s a bit like asking “what is good food?” — the answers would be either broad and bland, or interesting but very culture-specific.

Courses and textbooks

How should one resolve the issue raised above? I think the answer is simple. Stop claiming that Combinatorics, or worse, Discrete Mathematics, is one subject. That’s not true and hasn’t been true for a while. I talked about this in my “Unity of Combinatorics” book review. Combinatorics is comprised of many sub-areas, see the Wikipedia article I discussed here (long ago). Just accept it.

As a consequence, you should never teach a “Combinatorics” course. Never! Especially to graduate students, but to undergraduates as well. Teach courses in any and all of these subjects: Enumerative Combinatorics, Graph Theory, Probabilistic Combinatorics, Discrete Geometry, Algebraic Combinatorics, Arithmetic Combinatorics, etc. Whether introductory or advanced versions of these courses, there is plenty of material for each such course.

Stop using these broad “a little bit about everything” combinatorics textbooks which also tend to be bulky, expensive and shallow. It just doesn’t make sense to teach both the five color theorem and the Catalan numbers (see also here) in the same course. In fact, this is a disservice to both the students and the area. Different students want to know about different aspects of Combinatorics. Thus, if you are teaching the same numbered undergraduate course every semester you can just split it into two or three, and fix different syllabi in advance. The students will sort themselves out and chose courses they are most interested in.

My own teaching

At UCLA, with the help of the Department, we split one Combinatorics course into two titled “Graph Theory” and “Enumerative Combinatorics”. They are broader, in fact, than the titles suggest — see Math 180 and Math 184 here. The former turned out to be quite a bit more popular among many applied math and non-math majors, especially those interested in CS, engineering, data science, etc., but also from social sciences. Math majors tend to know a lot of this material and flock to the latter course. I am not saying you should do the same — this is just an example of what can be done.

I remember going through a long list of undergraduate combinatorics textbooks a few years ago, and found surprisingly little choice for the enumerative/algebraic courses. Of the ones I liked, let me single out Bóna’s “Introduction to Enumerative and Analytic Combinatorics and Stanley’s “Algebraic Combinatorics“. We now use both at UCLA. There are also many good Graph Theory course textbooks of all levels, of course.

Similarly, for graduate courses, make sure you make the subject relatively narrow and clearly defined. Like a topics class, except accessible to beginning graduate students. Low entry barrier is an advantage Combinatorics has over other areas, so use it. To give examples from my own teaching, see unedited notes from my graduate courses:

Combinatorics of posets (Fall 2020)

Combinatorics and Probability on groups (Spring 2020)

Algebraic Combinatorics (Winter 2019)

Discrete and Polyhedral Geometry (Fall 2018) This is based on my book. See also videos of selected topics (in Russian).

Combinatorics of Integer Sequences (Fall 2016)

Combinatorics of Words (Fall 2014)

Tilings (Winter 2013, lecture-by-lecture refs only)

In summary

In my experience, the more specific you make the combinatorics course the more interesting it is to the students. Don’t be afraid that the course would appear be too narrow or too advanced. That’s a stigma from the past. You create a good course and the students will quickly figure it out. They do have their own FB and other chat groups, and spread the news much faster than you could imagine…

Unfortunately, there is often no good textbook to cover what you want. So you might have to work a little harder harder to scout the material from papers, monographs, etc. In the internet era this is easier than ever. In fact, many extensive lecture notes are already available on the web. Eventually, all the appropriate textbooks will be written. As I mentioned before, this is one of the very few silver linings of the pandemic…

P.S. (July 8, 2021) I should have mentioned that in addition to “a little bit about everything” textbooks, there are also “a lot about everything” doorstopper size volumes. I sort of don’t think of them as textbooks at all, more like mixtures of a reference guide, encyclopedia and teacher’s manual. Since even the thought of teaching from such books overwhelms the senses, I don’t expect them to be widely adopted.

Having said that, these voluminous textbooks can be incredibly valuable to both the students and the instructor as a source of interesting supplementary material. Let me single out an excellent recent “Combinatorial Mathematics” by Doug West written in the same clear and concise style as his earlier “Introduction to Graph Theory“. Priced modestly (for 991 pages), I recommend it as “further reading” for all combinatorics courses, even though I strongly disagree with the second sentence of the Preface, per my earlier blog post.

How to fight the university bureaucracy and survive

June 27, 2021 Leave a comment

The enormity of the university administration can instill fear. How can you possibly fight such a machine? Even if an injustice happened to you, you are just one person with no power, right? Well, I think you can. Whether you succeed in your fight is another matter. But at least you can try… In this post I will try to give you some advise on how to do this.

Note: Initially I wanted to make this blog post light and fun, but I couldn’t think of a single joke. Somehow, the subject doesn’t inspire… So read this only if it’s relevant to you. Wait for future blog posts otherwise…

Warning: Much of what I say is relevant to big state universities in the US. Some of what I say may also be relevant to other countries and university systems, I wouldn’t know.

Basics

Who am I to write about this? It is reasonable to ask if any of this is based on my personal experience of fighting university bureaucracies. The answer is yes, but I am not willing to make any public disclosures to protect privacy of all parties involved. Let me just say that over the past 20 years I had several relatively quiet and fairly minor fights with university bureaucracies some of which I won rather quickly by being right. Once, I bullied my way into victory despite being in the wrong (as I later learned), and once I won over a difficult (non-personal) political issue by being cunning and playing a really long game that took almost 3 years. I didn’t lose any, but I did refrain from fighting several times. By contrast, when I tried to fight the federal government a couple of times (on academic matters), I lost quickly and decisively. They are just too powerful….

Should you fight? Maybe. But probably not. Say, you complained to the administration about what you perceive to be an injustice to you or to someone else. Your complaint was denied. This is when you need to decide if you want to start a fight. If you do, you will spend a lot of effort and (on average) probably lose. The administrations are powerful and know what they are doing. You probably don’t, otherwise you won’t be reading this. This blog post might help you occasionally, but wouldn’t change the big picture.

Can you fight? Yes, you can. You can win by being right and convince bureaucrats to see it this way. You can win by being persistent when others give up. You can also win by being smart. Big systems have weaknesses you can exploit, see below. Use them.

Is there a downside to winning a fight? Absolutely. In the process you might lose some friends, raise some suspicions from colleagues, and invite retribution. On a positive side, big systems have very little institutional memory — your win and the resulting embarrassment to administration will be forgotten soon enough.

Is there an upside to losing a fight? Actually, yes. You might gain resect of some colleagues as someone willing to fight. In fact, people tend to want being friends/friendly with such people out of self-preservation. And if your cause is righteous, this might help your reputation in and beyond the department.

Why did I fight? Because I just couldn’t go on without a fight. The injustice, as I perceived it, was eating me alive and I had a hunch there is a nonzero chance I would win. There were some cases when I figured the chances are zero, and I don’t need the grief. There were cases when the issue was much too minor to waste my energy. I don’t regret those decision, but having grown up in this unsavory part of Moscow, I was conditioned to stand up for myself.

Is there a cost of not fighting? Yes, and it goes beyond the obvious. First, fighting bureaucracy is a skill, and every skill takes practice. I remember when tried to rent an apartment in Cambridge, MA — some real estate agents would immediately ask if I go to Harvard Law School. Apparently it’s a common practice for law students to sue their landlords, an “extra credit” homework exercise. Most of these lawsuits would quickly fail, but the legal proceeding were costly to the owners.

Second, there is a society cost. If you feel confident that your case is strong, you winning might set a precedent which could benefit many others. I wrote on this blog once how I dropped (or never really started) a fight against the NSF, even though they clearly denied me the NSF Graduate Fellowship in a discriminatory manner, or at least that’s what I continue to believe. Not fighting was the right thing to do for me personally (I would have lost, 100%), but my case was strong and the fight itself might have raised some awareness to the issue. It took the NSF almost 25 years to figure out that it’s time to drop the GREs discriminatory requirement.

Axioms

  1. If it’s not in writing it never happened.
  2. Everyone has a boss.
  3. Bureaucrats care about themselves first and foremost. Then about people in their research area, department and university, in that order. Then undergraduates. Then graduate students. You are the last person they care about.

How to proceed

Know your adversary. Remember — you are not fighting a mafia, a corrupt regime or the whole society. Don’t get angry, fearful or paranoid. Your adversary is a group of good people who are doing their jobs as well as they can. They are not infallible, but probably pretty smart and very capable when it comes to bureaucracy, so from game theory point of view you may as well assume they are perfect. When they are not, you will notice that — that’s the weakness you can exploit, but don’t expect that to happen.

Know your rights. This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised to know how many academics are not aware they have rights in a university system. In fact, it’s a feature of every large bureaucracy — it produces a lot of well meaning rules. For example, Wikipedia is a large project which survived for 20 years, so unsurprisingly it has a large set of policies enforced by an army of admins. The same is probably true about your university and your department. Search on the web for the faculty handbook, university and department bylaws, etc. If you can’t find the anywhere, email the assistant to the Department Chair and ask for one.

Go through the motions. Say, you think you were slighted. For example, your salary was not increased (enough), you didn’t get a promotion, you got too many committee duties assigned, your sabbatical was not approved, etc. Whatever it is, you are upset, I get it. Your first step is not to complain but go through the motions, and email inquiries. Email the head of the department, chair of the executive committee, your faculty dean, etc., whoever is the decision maker. Calmly ask to explain this decision. Sometimes, this was an oversight and it’s corrected with a quick apology and “thanks for bringing this up”. You win, case closed. Also, sometimes you either get a convincing explanation with which you might agree — say, the university is on salary freeze so nobody got a salary increase, see some link. Again, case closed.

But in other cases you either receive an argument with which you disagree (say, “the decision was made based on your performance in the previous year”), a non-answer (say, “I am on sabbatical” or “I will not be discussing personal matters by email”), or no answer at all. These are the cases that you need to know how to handle and all such cases are a little different. I will try to cover as much territory as possible, but surely will miss some cases.

Ask for advice. This is especially important if you are a junior mathematician and feel a little overwhelmed. Find a former department chair, perhaps professor emeritus, and have an quiet chat. Old-timers know the history of the department, who are the university administrators, what are the rules, what happened to previous complaints, what would fly and what wouldn’t, etc. They might also suggest who else you should talk to that would be knowledgeable and help dealing with an issue. With friends like these, you are in a good shape.

Scenarios

Come by for a chat. This is a standard move by a capable bureaucrat. They invite you for a quick discussion, maybe sincerely apologize for “what happened” or “if you are upset” and promise something which they may or may not intend to keep. You are supposed to leave grateful that “you are heard” and nothing is really lost from admin’s point of view. You lost.

There is only one way to counter this move. Agree to a meeting — play nice and you might learn something. Don’t record in secret — it’s against the law in most states. Don’t ask if you can record the conversation — even if the bureaucrat agrees you will hear nothing but platitudes then (like “we in our university strive to make sure everyone is happy and successful, and it is my personal goal to ensure everyone is treated fairly and with respect”). This defeats the purpose of the meeting moving you back to square one.

At the meeting do not agree with anything, never say yes or no to anything. Not even to the routine “No hard feelings?” Just nod, take careful notes, say “thank you so much for taking time to have this meeting” and “This information is very useful, I will need to think it over”. Do not sign anything. If offered a document to sign, take it with you. If implicitly threatened, as in “Right now I can offer you this for you, but once you leave this office I can’t promise… ” (this is rare but does happen occasionally), ignore the threat. Just keep repeating “Thank you so much for informing me of my options, I will need to think it over.” Go home, think it over and talk to somebody.

Get it all in writing. Within a few hours after the meeting, email to the bureaucrat an email with your notes. Start this way: “Dear X, this is to follow up on the meeting we had on [date] regarding the [issue]. I am writing this to ensure there is no misunderstanding on my part. At the meeting you [offered/suggested/claimed/threatened] …. Please let me know if this is correct and what are the details of …”

A capable bureaucrat will recognize the move and will never go on record with anything unbecoming. They will accept the out you offered and claim that you indeed misunderstood. Don’t argue with that — you have them where you want it. In lieu of the misunderstanding they will need to give a real answer to your grievance (otherwise what was the point of the meeting?) Sometimes a bureaucrat will still resort to platitudes, but now that they are in writing, that trick is harder to pull off, and it leads us to a completely different scenario (see below).

Accept the win. You might receive something like this: “We sincerely apologize for [mistake]. While nothing can be done about [past decision], we intend to [compensate or rectify] by doing…” If this is a clear unambiguous promise in writing, you might want to accept it. If not, follow up about details. Do not pursue this any further and don’t make it public. You got what you wanted, it’s over.

Accept the defeat. You might learn that administration acted by the book, exactly the way the rules/bylaws prescribe, and you were not intentionally discriminated in any way. Remain calm. Thank the bureaucrat for the “clarification”. It’s over.

Power of CC. If you receive a non-answer full of platitudes or no email reply at all (give it exactly one week), then follow up. Write politely “I am afraid I did not receive an answer to [my questions] in my email from [date]. I would really appreciate your response to [all issues I raised]. P.S. I am CC’ing this email to [your boss, boss of your boss, your assistant, your peers, other fellow bureaucrats, etc.] to let them know of [my grievance] and in case they can be helpful with this situation.” They will not “be helpful”, of course, but that’s not the point. The CC move itself has an immense power driven by bureaucrats’ self-preservation. Most likely you will get a reply within hours. Just don’t abuse the CC move — use it when you have no other moves to play, as otherwise it loses its power.

Don’t accept a draw. Sometimes a capable bureaucrat might reply to the whole list on CC and write “We are very sorry [your grievance] happened. This is extremely atypical and related to [your unusual circumstances]. While this is normally not appropriate, we are happy to make an exception in your case and [compensate you].” Translation: “it’s your own fault, you brought it on yourself, we admit no wrongdoing, but we are being very nice and will make you happy even though we really don’t have to do anything, not at all.” While other bureaucrats will recognize the move and that there is an implicit admission of fault, they will stay quiet — it’s not their fight.

Now, there is only one way to counter this, as far as I know. If you don’t follow up it’s an implicit admission of “own fault” which you don’t want as the same issue might arise again in the future. If you start explaining that it’s really bureaucrat’s fault you seem vindictive (as in “you already got what you wanted, why do you keep pushing this?”), and other bureaucrats will close ranks leaving you worse off. The only way out is to pretend to be just as illogical as the bureaucrat pretends to be. Reply to the whole CC list something like “Thank you so much for your apology and understanding of my [issue]. I am very grateful this is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I gratefully accept your sincere apology and your assurances this will not happen again to me nor anyone else at the department.”

A capable bureaucrat will recognize they are fighting fire with fire. In your email you sound naïve and sincere — how do you fight that? What are they going to do — reply “actually, I didn’t issue any apology as this was not my fault”? Now that seem overly defensive. And they would have to reply to the whole CC list again, which is not what they want. They are aware that everyone else knows they screwed up, so reminding everyone with a new email is not in their interest. And there is a decent chance you might reply to the whole CC list again with all that sugarcoated unpleasantness. Most likely, you won’t hear from them again, or just a personal (non-CC’d) email which you can ignore regardless of the content.

Shifting blame or responsibility. That’s another trick bureaucrats employ very successfully. You might get a reply from a bureaucrat X to the effect saying “don’t ask me, these are rules made by [people upstairs]” or “As far as I know, person Y is responsible for this all”. This is great news for you — a tacit validation of your cause and an example of a bureaucrat putting their own well-being ahead of the institution. Remember, your fight is not with X, but with the administration. Immediately forward both your grievance and the reply to Y, or to X’s boss if no names were offered, and definitely CC X “to keep your in the loop of further developments on this issue”. That immediately pushes bureaucracy into overdrive as it starts playing musical chairs in the game “whose fault is that and what can be done”.

Like with musical chairs, you might have to repeat the procedure a few times, but chances are someone will eventually accept responsibility just to stop this embarrassment from going circles. By then, there will be so many people on the CC chain, your issue will be addressed appropriately.

Help them help you. Sometimes a complaint puts the bureaucrat into a stalemate. They want to admit that injustice happened to you, but numerous university rules forbid them from acting to redress the situation. In order to violate these rules, they would have to take the case upstairs, which brings its own complications to everyone involved. Essentially you need to throw them a lifeline by suggesting some creative solution to the problem.

Say, you can write “while I realize the deadline for approval of my half-year sabbatical has passed, perhaps the department can buyout one course from my Fall schedule and postpone teaching the other until Spring.” This moves the discussion from the “apology” subject to “what can be done”, a much easier bureaucratic terrain. While the bureaucrat may not agree with your proposed solution, your willingness to deal without an apology will earn you some points and perhaps lead to a resolution favorable to all parties.

Now, don’t be constrained in creativity of when thinking up such a face saving resolution. It is a common misconception that university administrations are very slow and rigid. This is always correct “on average”, and holds for all large administrative systems where responsibility is distributed across many departments and individuals. In reality, when they want to, such large systems can turn on a dime by quickly utilizing its numerous resources (human, financial, legal, etc.) I’ve seen it in action, it’s jaw-dropping, and it takes just one high ranking person to take up the issue and make it a cause.

Making it public. You shouldn’t do that unless you already lost but keep holding a grudge (and have tenure to protect you). Even then, you probably shouldn’t do it unless you are really good at PR. Just about every time you make grievances public you lose some social points with people who will hold it against you, claim you brought it on yourself, etc. In the world of social media your voice will be drowned and your case will be either ignored or take life of its own, with facts distorted to fit a particular narrative. The administration will close ranks and refuse to comment. You might be worse off than when you started.

The only example I can give is my own combative blog post which remains by far my most widely read post. Everyone just loves watching a train wreck… Many people asked why I wrote it, since it made me a persona non grata in the whole area of mathematics. I don’t have a good answer. In fact, that area may have lost some social capital as a result of my blog post, but haven’t changed at all. Some people apologized, that’s all. There is really nothing I can do and they know it. The truth is — my upbringing was acting up again, and I just couldn’t let it go without saying “Don’t F*** with Igor Pak”.

But you can very indirectly threaten to make it public. Don’t do it unless you are at an endgame dealing with a high ranking administrator and things are not looking good for you. Low level university bureaucrats are not really afraid for their jobs. For example, head of the department might not even want to occupy the position, and is fully protected by tenure anyway. But deans, provosts, etc. are often fully vested into their positions which come with substantial salary hike. If you have a sympathetic case, they wouldn’t want to be featured in a college newspaper as denying you some benefits, regardless of the merit. They wouldn’t be bullied into submission either, so some finesse is needed.

In this case I recommend you find an email of some student editor of a local university newspaper. In your reply to the high ranking administrator write something like “Yes, I understand the university position in regard to this issue. However, perhaps [creative solution]”. Then quietly insert the editor’s email into CC. In the reply, the administrator will delete the email from CC “for privacy reasons”, but will google to find out who is being CC’ed. Unable to gauge the extend of newspaper’s interest in the story, the administrator might chose to hedge and help you by throwing money at you or mollifying you in some creative way you proposed. Win–win.

Final word

I am confident there will be people on all sides who disagree collectively with just about every sentence I wrote. Remember — this blog post is a not a recommendation to do anything. It’s just my personal point of view on these delicate matters which tend to go undiscussed, leaving many postdocs and junior faculty facing alone their grievances. If you know a good guide on how to deal with these issues (beyond Rota’s advice), please post a link in the comments. Good luck everyone! Hope you will never have to deal with any of that!

Why you shouldn’t be too pessimistic

May 13, 2021 2 comments

In our math research we make countless choices. We chose a problem to work on, decide whether its claim is true or false, what tools to use, what earlier papers to study which might prove useful, who to collaborate with, which computer experiments might be helpful, etc. Choices, choices, choices… Most our choices are private. Others are public. This blog is about wrong public choices that I made misjudging some conjectures by being overly pessimistic.

The meaning of conjectures

As I have written before, conjectures are crucial to the developments of mathematics and to my own work in particular. The concept itself is difficult, however. While traditionally conjectures are viewed as some sort of “unproven laws of nature“, that comparison is widely misleading as many conjectures are descriptive rather than quantitative. To understand this, note the stark contrast with experimental physics, as many mathematical conjectures are not particularly testable yet remain quite interesting. For example, if someone conjectures there are infinitely many Fermat primes, the only way to dissuade such person is to actually disprove the claim.

There is also an important social aspect of conjecture making. For a person who poses a conjecture, there is a certain clairvoyance respected by other people in the area. Predictions are never easy, especially of a precise technical nature, so some bravery or self-assuredness is required. Note that social capital is spent every time a conjecture is posed. In fact, a lot of it is lost when it’s refuted, you come out even if it’s proved relatively quickly, and you gain only if the conjecture becomes popular or proved possibly many years later. There is also a “boy who cried wolf” aspect for people who make too many conjectures of dubious quality — people will just tune out.

Now, for the person working on a conjecture, there is also a betting aspect one cannot ignore. As in, are you sure you are working in the right direction? Perhaps, the conjecture is simply false and you are wasting your time… I wrote about this all before in the post linked above, and the life/career implications on the solver are obvious. The success in solving a well known conjecture is often regarded much higher than a comparable result nobody asked about. This may seem unfair, and there is a bit of celebrity culture here. Thinks about it this way — two lead actors can have similar acting skills, but the one who is a star will usually attract a much larger audience…

Stories of conjectures

Not unlike what happens to papers and mathematical results, conjectures also have stories worth telling, even if these stories are rarely discussed at length. In fact, these “conjecture stories” fall into a few types. This is a little bit similar to the “types of scientific papers” meme, but more detailed. Let me list a few scenarios, from the least to the most mathematically helpful:

(1) Wishful thinking. Say, you are working on a major open problem. You realize that a famous conjecture A follows from a combination of three conjectures B, C and D whose sole motivation is their applications to A. Some of these smaller conjectures are beyond the existing technology in the area and cannot be checked computationally beyond a few special cases. You then declare that this to be your “program” and prove a small special case of C. Somebody points out that D is trivially false. You shrug, replace it with a weaker D’ which suffices for your program but is harder to disprove. Somebody writes a long state of the art paper disproving D’. You shrug again and suggest an even weaker conjecture D”. Everyone else shrugs and moves on.

(2) Reconfirming long held beliefs. You are working in a major field of study aiming to prove a famous open problem A. Over the years you proved a number of special cases of A and became one the leaders of the area. You are very optimistic about A discussing it in numerous talks and papers. Suddenly A is disproved in some esoteric situations, undermining the motivation of much of your older and ongoing work. So you propose a weaker conjecture A’ as a replacement for A in an effort to salvage both the field and your reputation. This makes happy everyone in the area and they completely ignore the disproof of A from this point on, pretending it’s completely irrelevant. Meanwhile, they replace A with A’ in all subsequent papers and beamer talk slides.

(3) Accidental discovery. In your ongoing work you stumble at a coincidence. It seem, all objects of a certain kind have some additional property making them “nice“. You are clueless why would that be true, since being nice belongs to another area X. Being nice is also too abstract to be checked easily on a computer. You consult a colleague working in X whether this is obvious/plausible/can be proved and receive No/Yes/Maybe answers to these three questions. You are either unable to prove the property or uninterested in problem, or don’t know much about X. So you mention it in the Final Remarks section of your latest paper in vain hope somebody reads it. For a few years, every time you meet somebody working in X you mention to them your “nice conjecture”, so much that people laugh at you behind your back.

(4) Strong computational evidence. You are doing computer experiments related to your work. Suddenly certain numbers appear to have an unexpectedly nice formula or a generating function. You check with OEIS and the sequence is there indeed, but not with the meaning you wanted. You use the “scientific method” to get a few more terms and they indeed support your conjectural formula. Convinced this is not an instance of the “strong law of small numbers“, you state the formula as a conjecture.

(5) Being contrarian. You think deeply about famous conjecture A. Not only your realize that there is no way one can approach A in full generality, but also that it contradicts some intuition you have about the area. However, A was stated by a very influential person N and many people believe in A proving it in a number of small special cases. You want to state a non-A conjecture, but realize the inevitable PR disaster of people directly comparing you to N. So you either state that you don’t believe in A, or that you believe in a conjecture B which is either slightly stronger or slightly weaker than non-A, hoping the history will prove you right.

(6) Being inspirational. You think deeply about the area and realize that there is a fundamental principle underlying certain structures in your work. Formalizing this principle requires a great deal of effort and results in a conjecture A. The conjecture leads to a large body of work by many people, even some counterexamples in esoteric situations, leading to various fixes such as A’. But at that point A’ is no longer the goal but more of a direction in which people work proving a number of A-related results.

Obviously, there are many other possible stories, while some stories are are a mixture of several of these.

Why do I care? Why now?

In the past few years I’ve been collecting references to my papers which solve or make some progress towards my conjectures and open problems, putting links to them on my research page. Turns out, over the years I made a lot of those. Even more surprisingly, there are quite a few papers which address them. Here is a small sampler, in random order:

(1) Scott Sheffield proved my ribbon tilings conjecture.

(2) Alex Lubotzky proved my conjecture on random generation of a finite group.

(3) Our generalized loop-erased random walk conjecture (joint with Igor Gorodezky) was recently proved by Heng Guo and Mark Jerrum.

(4) Our Young tableau bijections conjecture (joint with Ernesto Vallejo) was resolved by André Henriques and Joel Kamnitzer.

(5) My size Ramsey numbers conjecture led to a series of papers, and was completely resolved only recently by Nemanja Draganić, Michael Krivelevich and Rajko Nenadov.

(6) One of my partition bijection problems was resolved by Byungchan Kim.

The reason I started collecting these links is kind of interesting. I was very impressed with George Lusztig and Richard Stanley‘s lengthy writeups about their collected papers that I mentioned in this blog post. While I don’t mean to compare myself to these giants, I figured the casual reader might want to know if a conjecture in some paper had been resolved. Thus the links on my website. I recommend others also do this, as a navigational tool.

What gives?

Well, looks like none of my conjectures have been disproved yet. That’s a good news, I suppose. However, by going over my past research work I did discover that on three occasions when I was thinking about other people’s conjectures, I was much too negative. This is probably the result of my general inclination towards “negative thinking“, but each story is worth telling.

(i) Many years ago, I spent some time thinking about Babai’s conjecture which states that there are universal constants C, c >0, such that for every simple group G and a generating set S, the diameter of the Cayley graph Cay(G,S) is at most C(log |G|)c. There has been a great deal of work on this problem, see e.g. this paper by Sean Eberhard and Urban Jezernik which has an overview and references.

Now, I was thinking about the case of the symmetric group trying to apply arithmetic combinatorics ideas and going nowhere. In my frustration, in a talk I gave (Galway, 2009), I wrote on the slides that “there is much less hope” to resolve Babai’s conjecture for An than for simple groups of Lie type or bounded rank. Now, strictly speaking that judgement was correct, but much too gloomy. Soon after, Ákos Seress and Harald Helfgott proved a remarkable quasi-polynomial upper bound in this case. To my embarrassment, they referenced my slides as a validation of the importance of their work.

Of course, Babai’s conjecture is very far from being resolved for An. In fact, it is possible that the diameter is always O(n2). We just have no idea. For simple groups of Lie type or large rank the existing worst case diameter bounds are exponential and much too weak compared to the desired bound. As Eberhard and Jezernik amusingly wrote in the paper linked above, “we are still exponentially stupid“…

(ii) When he was my postdoc at UCLA, Alejandro Morales told me about a curious conjecture in this paper (Conjecture 5.1), which claimed that the number of certain nonsingular matrices over the finite field Fq is polynomial in q with positive coefficients. He and coauthors proved the conjecture is some special cases, but it was wide open in full generality.

Now, I thought about this type of problems before and was very skeptical. I spent a few days working on the problem to see if any of my tools can disprove it, and failed miserably. But in my stubbornness I remained negative and suggested to Alejandro that he should drop the problem, or at least stop trying to prove rather than disprove the conjecture. I was wrong to do that.

Luckily, Alejandro ignored my suggestion and soon after proved the polynomial part of the conjecture together with Joel Lewis. Their proof is quite elegant and uses certain recurrences coming from the rook theory. These recurrences also allow a fast computation of these polynomials. Consequently, the authors made a number of computer experiments and disproved the positivity of coefficients part of the conjecture. So the moral is not to be so negative. Sometimes you need to prove a positive result first before moving to the dark side.

(iii) The final story is about the beautiful Benjamini conjecture in probabilistic combinatorics. Roughly speaking, it says that for every finite vertex transitive graph G on n vertices and diameter O(n/log n) the critical percolation constant pc <1. More precisely, the conjecture claims that there is p<1-ε, such that a p-percolation on G has a connected component of size >n/2 with probability at least δ, where constants ε, δ>0 depend on the constant implied by the O(*) notation, but not on n. Here by “p-percolation” we mean a random subgraph of G with probability p of keeping and 1-p of deleting an edge, independently for all edges of G.

Now, Itai Benjamini is a fantastic conjecture maker of the best kind, whose conjectures are both insightful and well motivated. Despite the somewhat technical claim, this conjecture is quite remarkable as it suggested a finite version of the “pc<1″ phenomenon for infinite groups of superlinear growth. The latter is the famous Benjamini–Schramm conjecture (1996), which was recently proved in a remarkable breakthrough by Hugo Duminil-Copin, Subhajit Goswami, Aran Raoufi, Franco Severo and Ariel Yadin. While I always believed in that conjecture and even proved a tiny special case of it, finite versions tend to be much harder in my experience.

In any event, I thought a bit about the Benjamini conjecture and talked to Itai about it. He convinced me to work on it. Together with Chis Malon, we wrote a paper proving the claim for some Cayley graphs of abelian and some more general classes of groups. Despite our best efforts, we could not prove the conjecture even for Cayley graphs of abelian groups in full generality. Benjamini noted that the conjecture is tight for products of two cyclic groups, but that justification did not sit well with me. There seemed to be no obvious way to prove the conjecture even for the Cayley graph of Sn generated by a transposition and a long cycle, despite the very small O(n2) diameter. So we wrote in the introduction: “In this paper we present a number of positive results toward this unexpected, and, perhaps, overly optimistic conjecture.”

As it turns out, it was us who were being overly pessimistic, even if we never actually stated that we believe the conjecture is false. Most recently, in an amazing development, Tom Hutchcroft and Matthew Tointon proved a slightly weaker version of the conjecture by adapting the methods of Duminil-Copin et al. They assume the O(n/(log n)c) upper bound on the diameter which they prove is sufficient, for some universal constant c>1. They also extend our approach with Malon to prove the conjecture for all Cayley graphs of abelian groups. So while the Benjamini conjecture is not completely resolved, my objections to it are no longer valid.

Final words on this

All in all, it looks like I was never formally wrong even if I was a little dour occasionally (Yay!?). Turns out, some conjectures are actually true or at least likely to hold. While I continue to maintain that not enough effort is spent on trying to disprove the conjectures, it is very exciting when they are proved. Congratulations to Harald, Alejandro, Joel, Tom and Matthew, and posthumous congratulations to Ákos for their terrific achievements!

The Unity of Combinatorics

April 10, 2021 1 comment

I just finished my very first book review for the Notices of the AMS. The authors are Ezra Brown and Richard Guy, and the book title is the same as the blog post. I had mixed feelings when I accepted the assignment to write this. I knew this would take a lot of work (I was wrong — it took a huge amount of work). But the reason I accepted is because I strongly suspected that there is no “unity of combinatorics”, so I wanted to be proved wrong. Here is how the book begins:

One reason why Combinatorics has been slow to become accepted as part of mainstream Mathematics is the common belief that it consists of a bag of isolated tricks, a number of areas: [very long list – IP] with little or no connection between them. We shall see that they have numerous threads weaving them together into a beautifully patterned tapestry.

Having read the book, I continue to maintain that there is no unity. The book review became a balancing act — how do you write a somewhat positive review if you don’t believe into the mission of the book? Here is the first paragraph of the portion of the review where I touch upon themes very familiar to readers of this blog:

As I see it, the whole idea of combinatorics as a “slow to become accepted” field feels like a throwback to the long forgotten era. This attitude was unfair but reasonably common back in 1970, outright insulting and relatively uncommon in 1995, and was utterly preposterous in 2020.

After a lengthy explanation I conclude:

To finish this line of thought, it gives me no pleasure to conclude that the case for the unity of combinatorics is too weak to be taken seriously. Perhaps, the unity of mathematics as a whole is an easier claim to establish, as evident from [Stanley’s] quotes. On the other hand, this lack of unity is not necessarily a bad thing, as we would be amiss without the rich diversity of cultures, languages, open problems, tools and applications of different areas.

Enjoy the full review! And please comment on the post with your own views on this alleged “unity”.

P.S. A large part of the book is freely downloadable. I made this website for the curious reader.

Remark (ADDED April 17, 2021)
Ezra “Bud” Brown gave a talk on the book illustrating many of the connections I discuss in the review. This was at a memorial conference celebrating Richard Guy’s legacy. I was not aware of the video until now. Watch the whole talk.

My interview

March 9, 2021 1 comment

Readers of this blog will remember my strong advocacy for taking interviews. In a surprising turn of events, Toufik Mansour interviewed me for the journal Enumerative Combinatorics and Applications (ECA). Here is that interview. Not sure if I am the right person to be interviewed, but if you want to see other Toufik’s interviews — click here (I mentioned some of them earlier). I am looking forward to read interviews of many more people in ECA and other journals.

P.S. The interview asks also about this blog, so it seems fitting to mention it here.

Corrections: (March 11, 2021) 1. I misread “What three results do you consider the most influential in combinatorics during the last thirty years?” question as asking about my own three results that are specifically in combinatorics. Ugh, to the original question – none of my results would go on that list. 2. In the pattern avoidance question, I misstated the last condition: I am asking for ec(Π) to be non-algebraic. Sorry everyone for all the confusion!

How to tell a good mathematical story

March 4, 2021 2 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.

What math stories to tell and not to tell?

February 8, 2021 3 comments

Storytelling can be surprisingly powerful. When a story is skillfully told, you get an almost magical feeling of being a part of it, making you care deeply about protagonists. Even if under ordinary circumstances you have zero empathy for the Civil War era outlaws or emperor penguins of Antarctica, you suddenly may find yourself engrossed with their fortune. This is a difficult skill to master, but the effects are visible even when used in earnest by the beginners.

Recently I started thinking about the kind of stories mathematicians should be telling. This was triggered by Angela Gibney‘s kind invitation to contribute an article on math writing to the Early Career Collection in the Notices of the AMS. So I looked at a few older articles and found them just wonderful. I am not the target audience for some of them, but I just kept reading them all one after another until I exhausted the whole collection.

My general advice — read the collection! Read a few pieces by some famous people or some people you know. If you like them, keep on reading. As I wrote in this blog post, you rarely get an insight into mathematician’s thinking unless they happen to write an autobiography or gave an interview. While this is more of a “how to” genre, most pieces are written in the first person narrative and do tell some interesting stories or have some curious points of view.

It is possible I am the last person to find out about the collection. I am not a member of the AMS, I don’t read the Notices, and it’s been a long time since anyone considered me “early career”. I found a few articles a little self-centered (but who am I to judge), and I would quibble with some advice (see below). But even those articles I found compelling and thought-provoking.

Having read the collection, I decided to write about mathematical storytelling. This is not something that comes naturally to most people in the field. Math stories (as opposed to stories about mathematicians) tend to be rather dry and unexciting, especially in the early years of studying. I will blog my own article some other time, but for now let me address the question in the title.

Stories to tell

With a few notable exceptions, just about all stories are worth telling. Whether in your autobiography or in your personal blog, as long as they are interesting to somebody — it’s all good. Given the lack of good stories, or any math stories really, it’s a good bet somebody will find your stories interesting. Let me expound on that.

Basically, anything personal works. To give examples from the collection, see e.g. stories by Mark Andrea de Cataldo, Alicia Prieto-Langarica, Terry Tao and John Urschel. Most autobiographies are written in this style, but a short blog post is also great. Overcoming an embarrassment caused by such public disclosure can be difficult, which makes it even more valuable to the readers.

Anything historical works, from full length monographs on history of math to short point of view pieces. Niche and off the beaten path stories are especially valuable. I personally like the classical History of Mathematical Notations by Florian Cajori, and Combinatorics: Ancient & Modern, a nice collection edited by Robin Wilson and John Watkins, with a several articles authored by names you will recognize. Note that an oral history can be also very valuable, see the kind of stories discussed by László Lovász and Endre Szemerédi mentioned in this blog post and Dynkin’s interviews I discussed here.

Anything juicy works. I mean, if you have a story of some famous mathematician doing something unusual (good or bad, or just plain weird), that attracts attention. This was the style of Steven Krantz’s two Math Apocryphia books, with many revealing and embarrassing anecdotes giving a sense of the bygone era.

Anything inspirational works. A beautiful example of this style is Francis Su’s Farewell Address as MAA President and part of his moving follow up book (the book has other interesting material as well). From the collection, let me single out Finding Your Reward by Skip Garibaldi which also aims to inspire. Yet another example is Bill Thurston‘s must read MO answer “What’s a mathematician to do?

Any off the beaten path math style is great. Think of “The Strong Law of Small Numbers” by Richard Guy, or many conjectures Terry Tao discusses in his blog. Think of “Missed opportunities” by Freeman Dyson, “Tilings of space by knotted tiles” by Colin Adams, or “One sentence proof… ” by Don Zagier (see also a short discussion here) — these are all remarkable and memorable pieces of writing that don’t conform to the usual peer review paradigm.

Finally, anything philosophical or metamathematical finds an audience. I am thinking of “Is it plausible?” by Barry Mazur, “Theorems for a Price” by Doron Zeilberger, “You and Your Research” by Richard Hamming, “Mathematics as Metaphor” by Yuri Manin, or even “Prime Numbers and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” by Carl Pomerance. We are all in search of some kind of answers, I suppose, so reading others thinking aloud about these deep questions always helps.

Practice makes perfect

Before I move to the other side, here is a simple advice on how to write a good story. Write as much as possible! There is no way around this. Absolutely no substitute, really. I’ve given this advice plenty of times, and so have everyone else. Let me conclude by this quote by Don Knuth which is a bit similar to Robert Lazarsfeld‘s advice. It makes my point much better and with with more authority that I can ever provide:

Of equal importance to solving a problem is the communication of that solution to others. The best way to improve your writing skills is to practice, practice, practice.

Seize every opportunity to write mini-essays about the theoretical work you are doing. Compose a blog for your friends, or even for yourself. When you write programs, write literate programs.

One of the best strategies to follow while doing PhD research is to prepare weekly reports of exactly what you are doing. What questions did you pursue that week? What positive answers did you get? What negative answers did you get? What are the major stumbling blocks that seem to be present at the moment? What related work are you reading?

Donald Knuth – On Writing up Research (posted by Omer Reingold), Theory Dish, Feb 26, 2018

Don’t be a journalist

In this interesting article in the same collection, Jordan Ellenberg writes:

Why don’t journalists talk about math as it really is? Because they don’t know how it really is. We do. And if we want the public discourse about math to be richer, broader, and deeper, we need to tell our own stories.

He goes on to suggest that one should start writing a blog and then pitch some articles to real newspapers and news magazines. He gives his own bio as one example (among others) of pitching and publishing in mainstream publications such as Slate and the New York Times. Obviously, I agree with the first (blog) part (duh!), but I am rather negative on the second part. I know, I know, this sounds discouraging, but hear me out.

First, what Jordan is not telling you is how hard he had to work on his craft before getting to the point of being acceptable to the general audience. This started with him getting Summa Cum Laude A.B. degree from Harvard in both Math and English (if I recall correctly), and then publishing a well-received novel, all before starting his regular Slate column. Very few math people have this kind of background on which they can build popular appeal.

Second, this takes away jobs from real journalists. Like every highly competitive intellectual profession, journalism requires years of study and practice. It has its own principles and traditions, graduate schools, etc. Call it a chutzpah or a Dunning–Kruger effect, but just because you are excellent in harmonic analysis doesn’t mean you can do even a mediocre job as a writer. Again — some people can do both, but most cannot. If anything, I suspect a negative correlation between math and writing skills.

Here is another way to think about this. Most people do realize that they don’t need to email their pretty iPhone pictures of a Machu Picchu sunrise to be published by the National Geographic. Or that their cobbler family recipe maybe not exactly be what Gourmet Magazine is looking for. Why would you think that writing is much easier then?

Third, this cheapens our profession to some degree. You really don’t need a Ph.D. in algebraic number theory and two perfect scores at the IMO to write about Powerball or baseball. You need a M.S. in statistics and really good writing skills. There are plenty of media sites which do that now, such as 538. There is even the whole DDJ specialization with many practitioners and a handful of Pulitzer prizes. Using quantitative methods is now mainstream, so what exactly are you bringing to the table?

Fourth, it helps to be honest. Jordan writes: “Editors like an angle. If there’s a math angle to a story in the news, pitch it! As someone with a degree in math, you have something to offer that most writers don’t.” This is true in the rare instances when, say, a Fields medal in your area is awarded, or something like that. But if it’s in an area far away from yours, then, uhm, you got nothing over many thousands of other people.

Now, please don’t take this as “don’t comment on current affairs” advice. No, no — please do! Comment away on your blog or on your podcast. Just don’t take jobs away from journalists. Help them instead! Write them emails, correct their mistakes. Let them interview you as an “expert”, whatever. Part of the reason the math related articles are so poor is because of mathematicians’ apathy and frequent disdain to the media, not because we don’t write newspaper articles — it’s really not our job.

Let me conclude with an anecdote about me reaching out to a newspaper. Once upon a time, long ago, flights used to distribute real newspapers to the passengers. I was sitting in the back and got a Wall Street Journal which I read out of boredom during takeoff. There was an article discussing the EU expansion and the fact that by some EU rules, the headquarters need a translator from every language to every other language. The article predicted dark days ahead, since it’s basically impossible to find people who can translate some smaller languages, such as from Maltese to Lithuanian. The article provided a helpful graph showing the number of translators needed as a function of the number of countries and claimed the exponential growth.

I was not amused, cut out the article, and emailed the author upon arrival, saying that with all my authority as an assistant professor at MIT, I promise that n(n-1) grows polynomially, not exponentially. I got back a surprisingly apologetic reply. The author confessed he was a math major in college, but was using the word without thinking. I don’t know if WSJ ever published a correction, but I bet the author will not be using this word so casually anymore, and if he ever advanced to the editorial position will propagate this knowledge to others. So there — that’s my personal contribution to improving public discourse…

Don’t be an apologist

In another beautifully written article in the Early Career collection, Izzet Coskun gives “advice on how to communicate mathematics quickly in informal settings”. He writes:

Whether before a promotion committee, at a party where one might meet future politicians or future parents of future colleagues, in the elevator on the way up to tea, or in the dean’s office at a job interview, we often have the opportunity to explain our work to a general audience. The time we have is usually short [..] Our audience will not be familiar with our terminology. Communicating mathematics in such settings is challenging.

He then gives a lot of very useful practical advice on how to prepare to such “math under a minute” conversation, how to be engaging, accessible, etc. It’s an all around good advice. However, I disagree. Here is my simple advice: Don’t Do It! If it’s a dean and this is a job interview, feel free to use any math jargon you want — it’s not your fault your field is technical, and the dean of sciences is used to it anyway. Otherwise, just say NO.

It’s true that sometimes your audience is friendly and is sincere in their interest in your work. In that case no matter what you say will disappoint them. There is a really good chance they can’t understand a word of what you say. They just think they can, and you are about to disillusion them.

But more often than not, the audience is actually not friendly, as was the case of a party Izzet described in his article. Many people harbor either a low regard or an outright resentment towards math stemming from their school years or some kind of “life experience”. These folks simply want to reinforce their views, and no matter what you say that will be taken as “you see, math is both hard, boring and useless”.

One should not confuse the unfriendlies with stupid or uneducated people. On the contrary, a lot of educated people think this way. A prime example is Amy Wax with her inimitable quote:

If we got rid of ninety percent of the math Ph.D. programs, would we really be worse off in any material respect?  I think that’s a serious question.

I discussed this quote at length in this blog post. There, I tried to answer her question. But after a few back-and-force emails (which I didn’t make public), it became clear that she is completely uninterested in the actual learning of what math is and what it does. She just wants to have her own answer validated by some area practitioners. Oh, well…

So here is the real reason why I think answering such people is pointless. No matter what you say, you come across as an apologist for the field. If people really want to understand what math is for, there are plenty of sources. In fact, have several bookshelves with extremely well written book-length answers. But it’s not your job to educate them! Worse, it is completely unreasonable to expect you to answer in “under one minute”.

Think about reactions of people when they meet other professionals. Someone says “I develop new DNA based cancer treatments” or “I work on improving VLSI architecture”, or “I device new option pricing strategies”. Is there a follow up request to explain it in “under one minute”? Not really. Let me give you a multiple choice. Is that because people think that:

a) these professions are boring compared to math and they would rather hear about the latter?

b) they know exactly what these professionals do, but math is so darn mysterious?

c) they know these professions are technical and hard to understand, but even children can understand math, so how hard can that be?

d) these professions are clearly useful, but what do math people do — solve quadratic equations all day?

If you answered a) or b) you have more faith in humanity than I do. If you answered c) you never spoke to anyone about math at a party. So d) is the only acceptable answer, even if it’s an exaggeration. Some people (mostly under 7) think that I “add numbers all day”, some people (mostly in social sciences) think that I “take derivatives all day”, etc., you get the point. My advice — don’t correct them. This makes them unhappy. Doesn’t matter if they are 7 or 77 — when you correct them the unhappiness is real and visible…

So here is a summary of how I deal with such questions. If people ask what I do, I answer “I do math research and I teach“. If they ask what kind of research I say “advanced math“. If they ask for details I tell them “it’s complicated“. If they ask why, I tell them “because it takes many years of study to even understand the math lingo, so if I tell you what I do this sounds like I am speaking a foreign language“.

If they ask what are the applications of my research (and they always do), I tell them “teaching graduate classes“. If they ask for “practical” applications, whatever that means, I tell them “this puts money into my Wells Fargo account“. At this point they move on exhausted by the questions. On the one hand I didn’t lie except in the last answer. On the other — nobody cares if I even have a WF account (I don’t, but it’s none of their business either).

One can ask — why do I care so much? What’s so special about my work that I am so apprehensive? In truth, nothing really. There are other aspects of my identity I also find difficult discussing in public. The most relevant is “What is Combinatorics?” which for some reason is asked over and over as if there is a good answer (see this blog post for my own answer and this Wikipedia article I wrote). When I hear people explaining what it is, half the time it sounds like they are apologizing for something they didn’t do…

There are other questions relevant to my complex identity that I am completely uninterested in discussing. Like “What do you think of the Russian President?” or “Who is a Jew?“, or “Are you a Zionist?” It’s not that my answers are somehow novel, interesting or controversial (they are not). It’s more like I am afraid to hear responses from the people who asked me these questions. More often than not I find their answers unfortunate or plain offensive, and I would rather not know that.

Let me conclude on a positive note, by telling a party story of my own. Once, during hors d’oeuvres (remember those?), one lady, a well known LA lawyer, walked to me and said: “I hear you are a math professor at UCLA. This is so fascinating! Can you tell me what you do? Just WOW me!” I politely declined along the lines above. She insisted: “There has to be something that I can understand!” I relented: “Ok, there is one theorem I can tell you. In fact, this result landed me a tenure.” She was all ears.

I continued: “Do you know what’s a square-root-of-two?” She nodded. “Well, I proved that this number can never be a ratio of two integers, for example it’s not equal to 17/12 or anything like that.” “Oh, shut-the-F-up!” she exclaimed. “Are you serious? You can prove that?” — she was clearly suspicious. “Yes, I can“, I confirmed vigorously, “in fact, two Russian newspapers even printed headlines about that back a few years ago. We love math over there, you know.”

But of course!“, she said, “American media never writes about math. It’s such a shame! That’s why I never heard of your work. My son is much too young for this, but I must tell my nieces — they love science!” I nodded approvingly. She drifted away very happy, holding a small plate of meat stuffed potato croquettes, enriched with this newly acquired knowledge. I do hope her nieces liked that theorem — it is cool indeed. And the proof is so super neat…

It could have been worse! Academic lessons of 2020

December 20, 2020 4 comments

Well, this year sure was interesting, and not in a good way. Back in 2015, I wrote a blog post discussing how video talks are here to stay, and how we should all agree to start giving them and embrace watching them, whether we like it or not. I was right about that, I suppose. OTOH, I sort of envisioned a gradual acceptance of this practice, not the shock therapy of a phase transition. So, what happened? It’s time to summarize the lessons and roll out some new predictions.

Note: this post is about the academic life which is undergoing some changes. The changes in real life are much more profound, but are well discussed elsewhere.

Teaching

This was probably the bleakest part of the academic life, much commented upon by the media. Good thing there is more to academia than teaching, no matter what the ignorant critics think. I personally haven’t heard anyone saying post-March 2020, that online education is an improvement. If you are like me, you probably spent much more time preparing and delivering your lectures. The quality probably suffered a little. The students probably didn’t learn as much. Neither party probably enjoyed the experience too much. They also probably cheated quite a bit more. Oh, well…

Let’s count the silver linings. First, it will all be over some time next year. At UCLA, not before the end of Summer. Maybe in the Fall… Second, it could’ve been worse. Much worse. Depending on the year, we would have different issues. Back in 1990, we would all be furloughed for a year living off our savings. In 2000, most families had just one personal computer (and no smartphones, obviously). Let the implications of that sink in. But even in 2010 we would have had giant technical issues teaching on Skype (right?) by pointing our laptop cameras on blackboards with dismal effect. The infrastructure which allows good quality streaming was also not widespread (people were still using Redbox, remember?)

Third, the online technology somewhat mitigated the total disaster of studying in the pandemic time. Students who are stuck in faraway countries or busy with family life can watch stored videos of lectures at their convenience. Educational and grading software allows students to submit homeworks and exams online, and instructors to grade them. Many other small things not worth listing, but worth being thankful for.

Fourth, the accelerated embrace of the educational technology could be a good thing long term, even when things go back to normal. No more emails with scanned late homeworks, no more canceled/moved office hours while away at conferences. This can all help us become better at teaching.

Finally, a long declared “death of MOOCs” is no longer controversial. As a long time (closeted) opponent to online education, I am overjoyed that MOOCs are no longer viewed as a positive experience for university students, more like something to suffer through. Here in CA we learned this awhile ago, as the eagerness of the current Gov. Newsom (back then Lt. Gov.) to embrace online courses did not work out well at all. Back in 2013, he said that the whole UC system needs to embrace online education, pronto: “If this doesn’t wake up the U.C. [..] I don’t know what will.” Well, now you know, Governor! I guess, in 2020, I don’t have to hide my feelings on this anymore…

Research

I always thought that mathematicians can work from anywhere with a good WiFi connection. True, but not really – this year was a mixed experience as lonely introverts largely prospered research wise, while busy family people and extraverts clearly suffered. Some day we will know how much has research suffered in 2020, but for me personally it wasn’t bad at all (see e.g. some of my results described in my previous blog post).

Seminars

I am not even sure we should be using the same word to describe research seminars during the pandemic, as the experience of giving and watching math lectures online are so drastically different compared to what we are used to. Let’s count the differences, which are both positive and negative.

  1. The personal interactions suffer. Online people are much more shy to interrupt, follow up with questions after the talk, etc. The usual pre- or post-seminar meals allow the speaker to meet the (often junior) colleagues who might be more open to ask questions in an informal setting. This is all bad.
  2. Being online, the seminar opened to a worldwide audience. This is just terrific as people from remote locations across the globe now have the same access to seminars at leading universities. What arXiv did to math papers, covid did to math seminars.
  3. Again, being online, the seminars are no longer restricting themselves to local speaks or having to make travel arrangements to out of town speakers. Some UCLA seminars this year had many European speakers, something which would be prohibitively expensive just last year.
  4. Many seminars are now recorded with videos and slides posted online, like we do at the UCLA Combinatorics and LA Combinatorics and Complexity seminars I am co-organizing. The viewers can watch them later, can fast forward, come back and re-watch them, etc. All the good features of watching videos I extolled back in 2015. This is all good.
  5. On a minor negative side, the audience is no longer stable as it varies from seminar to seminar, further diminishing personal interactions and making level of the audience somewhat unpredictable and hard to aim for.
  6. As a seminar organizer, I make it a personal quest to encourage people to turn on their cameras at the seminars by saying hello only to those whose faces I see. When the speaker doesn’t see the faces, whether they are nodding or quizzing, they are clueless whether the they are being clear, being too fast or too slow, etc. Stopping to ask for questions no longer works well, especially if the seminar is being recorded. This invariably leads to worse presentations as the speakers can misjudge the audience reactions.
  7. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of handling technology challenges equally well. I have seen remarkably well presented talks, as well as some of extremely poor quality talks. The ability to mute yourself and hide behind your avatar is the only saving grace in such cases.
  8. Even the true haters of online educations are now at least semi-on-board. Back in May, I wrote to Chris Schaberg dubbed by the insufferable Rebecca Schuman as “vehemently opposed to the practice“. He replied that he is no longer that opposed to teaching online, and that he is now in a “it’s really complicated!” camp. Small miracles…

Conferences

The changes in conferences are largely positive. Unfortunately, some conferences from the Spring and Summer of 2020 were canceled and moved, somewhat optimistically, to 2021. Looking back, they should all have been held in the online format, which opens them to participants from around the world. Let’s count upsides and downsides:

  1. No need for travel, long time commitments and financial expenses. Some conferences continue charging fees for online participation. This seems weird to me. I realize that some conferences are vehicles to support various research centers and societies. Whatever, this is unsustainable as online conferences will likely survive the pandemic. These organizations should figure out some other income sources or die.
  2. The conferences are now truly global, so the emphasis is purely on mathematical areas than on the geographic proximity. This suggests that the (until recently) very popular AMS meetings should probably die, making AMS even more of a publisher than it is now. I am especially looking forward to the death of “joint meetings” in January which in my opinion outlived their usefulness as some kind of math extravaganza events bringing everyone together. In fact, Zoom simply can’t bring five thousand people together, just forget about it…
  3. The conferences are now open to people in other areas. This might seem minor — they were always open. However, given the time/money constraints, a mathematician is likely to go only to conferences in their area. Besides, since they rarely get invited to speak at conferences in other areas, travel to such conferences is even harder to justify. This often leads to groupthink as the same people meet year after year at conferences on narrow subjects. Now that this is no longer an obstacle, we might see more interactions between the fields.
  4. On a negative side, the best kind of conferences are small informal workshops (think of Oberwolfach, AIM, Banff, etc.), where the lectures are advanced and the interactions are intense. I miss those and hope they come back as they are really irreplaceable in the only setting. If all goes well, these are the only conferences which should definitely survive and even expand in numbers perhaps.

Books and journals

A short summary is that in math, everything should be electronic, instantly downloadable and completely free. Cut off from libraries, thousands of mathematicians were instantly left to the perils of their university library’s electronic subscriptions and their personal book collections. Some fared better than others, in part thanks to the arXiv, non-free journals offering old issues free to download, and some ethically dubious foreign websites.

I have been writing about my copyleft views for a long time (see here, there and most recently there). It gets more and more depressing every time. Just when you think there is some hope, the resilience of paid publishing and reluctance to change by the community is keeping the unfortunate status quo. You would think everyone would be screaming about the lack of access to books/journals, but I guess everyone is busy doing something else. Still, there are some lessons worth noting.

  1. You really must have all your papers freely available online. Yes, copyrighted or not, the publishers are ok with authors posting their papers on their personal website. They are not ok when others are posting your papers on their websites, so the free access to your papers is on you and your coauthors (if any). Unless you have already done so, do this asap! Yes, this applies even to papers accessible online by subscription to selected libraries. For example, many libraries including all of UC system no longer have access to Elsevier journals. Please help both us and yourself! How hard is it to put the paper on the arXiv or your personal website? If people like Noga Alon and Richard Stanley found time to put hundreds of their papers online, so can you. I make a point of emailing to people asking them to do that every time I come across a reference which I cannot access. They rarely do, and usually just email me the paper. Oh, well, at least I tried…
  2. Learn to use databases like MathSciNet and Zentralblatt. Maintain your own website by adding the slides, video links as well as all your papers. Make sure to clean up and keep up to date your Google Scholar profile. When left unattended it can get overrun with random papers by other people, random non-research files you authored, separate items for same paper, etc. Deal with all that – it’s easy and takes just a few minutes (also, some people judge them). When people are struggling trying to do research from home, every bit of help counts.
  3. If you are signing a book contract, be nice to online readers. Make sure you keep the right to display a public copy on your website. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to authors who did this. Here is my favorite, now supplemented with high quality free online lectures. Be like that! Don’t be like one author (who will remain unnamed) who refused to email me a copy of a short 5 page section from his recent book. I wanted to teach the section in my graduate class on posets this Fall. Instead, the author suggested I buy a paper copy. His loss — I ended up teaching some other material instead. Later on, I discovered that the book is already available on one of those ethically compromised websites. He was fighting a battle he already lost!

Home computing

Different people can take different conclusions from 2020, but I don’t think anyone would argue the importance of having good home computing. There is a refreshing variety of ways in which people do this, and it’s unclear to me what is the optimal set up. With a vaccine on the horizon, people might be reluctant to further invest into new computing equipment (or video cameras, lights, whiteboard, etc.), but the holiday break is actually a good time to marinate on what worked out well and what didn’t.

Read your evaluations and take them to heart. Make changes when you see there are problems. I know, it’s unfair, your department might never compensate you for all this stuff. Still, it’s a small price to pay for having a safe academic job in the time of widespread anxiety.

Predictions for the future

  1. Very briefly: I think online seminars and conferences are here to stay. Local seminars and small workshops will also survive. The enormous AMS meetings and expensive Theory CS meetings will play with the format, but eventually turn online for good or die untimely death.
  2. Online teaching will remain being offered by every undergraduate math program to reach out to students across the spectrum of personal circumstances. A small minority of courses, but still. Maybe one section of each calculus, linear algebra, intro probability, discrete math, etc. Some faculty might actually prefer this format to stay away from office one semester. Perhaps, in place of a sabbatical, they can ask for permission to spend a semester some other campus, maybe in another state or country, while they continue teaching, holding seminars, supervising students, etc. This could be a perk of academic life to compete with the “remote work” that many businesses are starting to offer on a permanent basis. Universities would have to redefine what they mean by “residence” requirement for both faculty and students.
  3. More university libraries will play hardball and unsubscribe from major for-profit publishers. This would again sound hopeful, but not gain a snowball effect for at least the next 10 years.
  4. There will be some standardization of online teaching requirements across the country. Online cheating will remain widespread. Courts will repeatedly rule that business and institutions can discount or completely ignore all 2020 grades as unreliable in large part because of the cheating scandals.

Final recommendations

  1. Be nice to your junior colleagues. In the winner-take-all no-limits online era, the established and well-known mathematicians get invited over and over, while their junior colleagues get overlooked, just in time when they really need help (job market might be tough this year). So please go out of your way to invite them to give talks at your seminars. Help them with papers and application materials. At least reply to their emails! Yes, even small things count…
  2. Do more organizing if you are in position to do so. In the absence of physical contact, many people are too shy and shell-shocked to reach out. Seminars, conferences, workshops, etc. make academic life seem somewhat normal and the breaks definitely allow for more interactions. Given the apparent abundance of online events one my be forgiven to think that no more is needed. But more locally focused online events are actually important to help your communities. These can prove critical until everything is back to normal.

Good luck everybody! Hope 2021 will be better for us all!

What if they are all wrong?

December 10, 2020 5 comments

Conjectures are a staple of mathematics. They are everywhere, permeating every area, subarea and subsubarea. They are diverse enough to avoid a single general adjective. They come in al shapes and sizes. Some of them are famous, classical, general, important, inspirational, far-reaching, audacious, exiting or popular, while others are speculative, narrow, technical, imprecise, far-fetched, misleading or recreational. That’s a lot of beliefs about unproven claims, yet we persist in dispensing them, inadvertently revealing our experience, intuition and biases.

The conjectures also vary in attitude. Like a finish line ribbon they all appear equally vulnerable to an outsider, but in fact differ widely from race to race. Some are eminently reachable, the only question being who will get there first (think 100 meter dash). Others are barely on the horizon, requiring both great effort, variety of tools, and an extended time commitment (think ironman triathlon). The most celebrated third type are like those Sci-Fi space expeditions in requiring hundreds of years multigenerational commitments, often losing contact with civilization it left behind. And we can’t forget the romantic fourth type — like the North Star, no one actually wants to reach them, as they are largely used for navigation, to find a direction in unchartered waters.

Now, conjectures famously provide a foundation of the scientific method, but that’s not at all how we actually think of them in mathematics. I argued back in this pointed blog post that citations are the most crucial for the day to day math development, so one should take utmost care in making references. While this claim is largely uncontroversial and serves as a raison d’être for most GoogleScholar profiles, conjectures provide a convenient idealistic way out. Thus, it’s much more noble and virtuous to say “I dedicated my life to the study of the XYZ Conjecture” (even if they never publish anything), than “I am working hard writing so many papers to gain respect of my peers, get a promotion, and provide for my family“. Right. Obviously…

But given this apparent (true or perceived) importance of conjectures, are you sure you are using them right? What if some/many of these conjectures are actually wrong, what then? Should you be flying that starship if there is no there there? An idealist would argue something like “it’s a journey, not a destination“, but I strongly disagree. Getting closer to the truth is actually kind of important, both as a public policy and on an individual level. It is thus pretty important to get it right where we are going.

What are conjectures in mathematics?

That’s a stupid question, right? Conjectures are mathematical claims whose validity we are trying to ascertain. Is that all? Well, yes, if you don’t care if anyone will actually work on the conjecture. In other words, something about the conjecture needs to interesting and inspiring.

What makes a conjecture interesting?

This is a hard question to answer because it is as much psychological as it is mathematical. A typical answer would be “oh, because it’s old/famous/beautiful/etc.” Uhm, ok, but let’s try to be a little more formal.

One typically argues “oh, that’s because this conjecture would imply [a list of interesting claims and known results]”. Well, ok, but this is self-referential. We already know all those “known results”, so no need to prove them again. And these “claims” are simply other conjectures, so this is really an argument of the type “this conjecture would imply that conjecture”, so not universally convincing. One can argue: “look, this conjecture has so many interesting consequences”. But this is both subjective and unintuitive. Shouldn’t having so many interesting conjectural consequences suggest that perhaps the conjecture is too strong and likely false? And if the conjecture is likely to be false, shouldn’t this make it uninteresting?

Also, wouldn’t it be interesting if you disprove a conjecture everyone believes to be true? In some sense, wouldn’t it be even more interesting if until now everyone one was simply wrong?

None of this are new ideas, of course. For example, faced with the need to justify the “great” BC conjecture, or rather 123 pages of survey on the subject (which is quite interesting and doesn’t really need to be justified), the authors suddenly turned reflective. Mindful of self-referential approach which they quickly discard, they chose a different tactic:

We believe that the interest of a conjecture lies in the feeling of unity of mathematics that it entails. [M.P. Gomez Aparicio, P. Julg and A. Valette, “The Baum-Connes conjecture“, 2019]

Huh? Shouldn’t math be about absolute truths, not feelings? Also, in my previous blog post, I mentioned Noga Alon‘s quote that Mathematics is already “one unit“. If it is, why does it need a new “feeling of unity“? Or is that like one of those new age ideas which stop being true if you don’t reinforce them at every occasion?

If you are confused at this point, welcome to the club! There is no objective way to argue what makes certain conjectures interesting. It’s all in our imagination. Nikolay Konstantinov once told me that “mathematics is a boring subject because every statement is equivalent to saying that some set is empty.” He meant to be provocative rather than uninspiring. But the problem he is underlying is quite serious.

What makes us believe a conjecture is true?

We already established that in order to argue that a conjecture is interesting we need to argue it’s also true, or at least we want to believe it to be true to have all those consequences. Note, however, that we argue that a conjecture is true in exactly the same way we argue it’s interesting: by showing that it holds is some special cases, and that it would imply other conjectures which are believed to be true because they are also checked in various special cases. So in essence, this gives “true = interesting” in most cases. Right?

This is where it gets complicated. Say, you are working on the “abc conjecture” which may or may not be open. You claim that it has many consequences, which makes it both likely true and interesting. One of them is the negative solution to the Erdős–Ulam problem about existence of a dense set in the plane with rational pairwise distances. But a positive solution to the E-U problem implies the Harborth’s conjecture (aka the “integral Fáry problem“) that every graph can be drawn in the plane with rational edge lengths. So, counterintuitively, if you follow the logic above shouldn’t you be working on a positive solution to Erdős–Ulam since it would both imply one conjecture and give a counterexample to another? For the record, I wouldn’t do that, just making a polemical point.

I am really hoping you see where I am going. Since there is no objective way to tell if a conjecture is true or not, and what exactly is so interesting about it, shouldn’t we discard our biases and also work towards disproving the conjecture just as hard as trying to prove it?

What do people say?

It’s worth starting with a general (if slightly poetic) modern description:

In mathematics, [..] great conjectures [are] sharply formulated statements that are most likely true but for which no conclusive proof has yet been found. These conjectures have deep roots and wide ramifications. The search for their solution guides a large part of mathematics. Eternal fame awaits those who conquer them first. Remarkably, mathematics has elevated the formulation of a conjecture into high art. [..] A well-chosen but unproven statement can make its author world-famous, sometimes even more so than the person providing the ultimate proof. [Robbert Dijkgraaf, The Subtle Art of the Mathematical Conjecture, 2019]

Karl Popper thought that conjectures are foundational to science, even if somewhat idealized the efforts to disprove them:

[Great scientists] are men of bold ideas, but highly critical of their own ideas: they try to find whether their ideas are right by trying first to find whether they are not perhaps wrong. They work with bold conjectures and severe attempts at refuting their own conjectures. [Karl Popper, Heroic Science, 1974]

Here is how he reconciled somewhat the apparent contradiction:

On the pre-scientific level we hate the very idea that we may be mistaken. So we cling dogmatically to our conjectures, as long as possible. On the scientific level, we systematically search for our mistakes. [Karl Popper, quoted by Bryan Magee, 1971]

Paul Erdős was, of course, a champion of conjectures and open problems. He joked that the purpose of life is “proof and conjecture” and this theme is repeatedly echoed when people write about him. It is hard to overestimate his output, which included hundreds of talks titled “My favorite problems“. He wrote over 180 papers with collections of conjectures and open problems (nicely assembled by Zbl. Math.)

Peter Sarnak has a somewhat opposite point of view, as he believes one should be extremely cautious about stating a conjecture so people don’t waste time working on it. He said once, only half-jokingly:

Since we reward people for making a right conjecture, maybe we should punish those who make a wrong conjecture. Say, cut off their fingers. [Peter Sarnak, UCLA, c. 2012]

This is not an exact quote — I am paraphrasing from memory. Needless to say, I disagree. I don’t know how many fingers he wished Erdős should lose, since some of his conjectures were definitely disproved: one, two, three, four, five, and six. This is not me gloating, the opposite in fact. When you are stating hundreds of conjectures in the span of almost 50 years, having only a handful to be disproved is an amazing batting average. It would, however, make me happy if Sarnak’s conjecture is disproved someday.

Finally, there is a bit of a controversy whether conjectures are worth as much as theorems. This is aptly summarized in this quote about yet another champion of conjectures:

Louis J. Mordell [in his book review] questioned Hardy‘s assessment that Ramanujan was a man whose native talent was equal to that of Euler or Jacobi. Mordell [..] claims that one should judge a mathematician by what he has actually done, by which Mordell seems to mean, the theorems he has proved. Mordell’s assessment seems quite wrong to me. I think that a felicitous but unproved conjecture may be of much more consequence for mathematics than the proof of many a respectable theorem. [Atle Selberg, “Reflections Around the Ramanujan Centenary“, 1988]

So, what’s the problem?

Well, the way I see it, the efforts made towards proving vs. disproving conjectures is greatly out of balance. Despite all the high-minded Popper’s claims about “severe attempts at refuting their own conjectures“, I don’t think there is much truth to that in modern math sciences. This does not mean that disproofs of famous conjectures aren’t celebrated. Sometimes they are, see below. But it’s clear to me that the proofs are celebrated more frequently, and to a much greater degree. I have only anecdotal evidence to support my claim, but bear with me.

Take prizes. Famously, Clay Math Institute gives $1 million for a solution of any of these major open problems. But look closely at the rules. According to the item 5b, except for the P vs. NP problem and the Navier–Stokes Equation problem, it gives nothing ($0) for a disproof of these problems. Why, oh why?? Let’s look into CMI’s “primary objectives and purposes“:

To recognize extraordinary achievements and advances in mathematical research.

So it sounds like CMI does not think that disproving the Riemann Hypothesis needs to be rewarded because this wouldn’t “advance mathematical research”. Surely, you are joking? Whatever happened to “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth“? Why does the CMI wants to put its thumb on the scale and support only one side? Do they not want to find out the solution whatever it is? Shouldn’t they be eager to dispense with the “wrong conjecture” so as to save numerous researches from “advances to nowhere“?

I am sure you can see that my blood is boiling, but let’s proceed to the P vs. NP problem. What if it’s independent of ZFC? Clearly, CMI wouldn’t pay for proving that. Why not? It’s not like this kind of thing never happened before (see obligatory link to CH). Some people believe that (or at least they did in 2012), and some people like Scott Aaronson take this seriously enough. Wouldn’t this be a great result worthy of an award as much as the proof that P=NP, or at least a nonconstructive proof that P=NP?

If your head is not spinning hard enough, here is another amusing quote:

Of course, it’s possible that P vs. NP is unprovable, but that that fact itself will forever elude proof: indeed, maybe the question of the independence of P vs. NP is itself independent of set theory, and so on ad infinitum! But one can at least say that, if P vs. NP (or for that matter, the Riemann hypothesis, Goldbach’s conjecture, etc.) were proven independent of ZF, it would be an unprecedented development. [Scott Aaronson, P vs. NP, 2016].

Speaking of Goldbach’s Conjecture, the most talked about and the most intuitively correct statement in Number Theory that I know. In a publicity stunt, for two years there was a $1 million prize by a publishing house for the proof of the conjecture. Why just for the proof? I never heard of anyone not believing the conjecture. If I was the insurance underwriter for the prize (I bet they had one), I would allow them to use “for the proof or disproof” for a mere extra $100 in premium. For another $50 I would let them use “or independent of ZF” — it’s a free money, so why not? It’s such a pernicious idea of rewarding only one kind of research outcome!

Curiously, even for Goldbach’s Conjecture, there is a mild divergence of POVs on what the future holds. For example, Popper writes (twice in the same book!) that:

[On whether Goldbach’s Conjecture is ‘demonstrable’] We don’t know: perhaps we may never know, and perhaps we can never know. [Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1963]

Ugh. Perhaps. I suppose anything can happen… For example, our civilizations can “perhaps” die out in the next 200 years. But is that likely? Shouldn’t the gloomy past be a warning, not a prediction of the future? The only thing more outrageously pessimistic is this theological gem of a quote:

Not even God knows the number of permutations of 1000 avoiding the 1324 pattern. [Doron Zeilberger, quoted here, 2005]

Thanks, Doron! What a way to encourage everyone! Since we know from numerical estimates that this number is ≈ 3.7 × 101017 (see this paper and this follow up), Zeilberger is suggesting that large pattern avoidance numbers are impossibly hard to compute precisely, already in the range of only about 1018 digits. I really hope he is proved wrong in his lifetime.

But I digress. What I mean to emphasize, is that there are many ways a problem can be resolved. Yet some outcomes are considered more valuable than others. Shouldn’t the research achievements be rewarded, not the desired outcome? Here is yet another colorful opinion on this:

Given a conjecture, the best thing is to prove it. The second best thing is to disprove it. The third best thing is to prove that it is not possible to disprove it, since it will tell you not to waste your time trying to disprove it. That’s what Gödel did for the Continuum Hypothesis. [Saharon Shelah, Rutgers Univ. Colloqium, 2001]

Why do I care?

For one thing, disproving conjectures is part of what I do. Sometimes people are a little shy to unambiguously state them as formal conjectures, so they phrase them as questions or open problems, but then clarify that they believe the answer is positive. This is a distinction without a difference, or at least I don’t see any (maybe they are afraid of Sarnak’s wrath?) Regardless, proving their beliefs wrong is still what I do.

For example, here is my old bog post on my disproof of the Noonan-Zeiberger Conjecture (joint with Scott Garrabrant). And in this recent paper (joint with Danny Nguyen), we disprove in one big swoosh both Barvinok’s Problem, Kannan’s Problem, and Woods Conjecture. Just this year I disproved three conjectures:

  1. The Kirillov–Klyachko Conjecture (2004) that the reduced Kronecker coefficients satisfy the saturation property (this paper, joint with Greta Panova).
  2. The Brandolini et al. Conjecture (2019) that concrete lattice polytopes can multitile the space (this paper, joint with Alexey Garber).
  3. Kenyon’s Problem (c. 2005) that every integral curve in R3 is a boundary of a PL surface comprised of unit triangles (this paper, joint with Alexey Glazyrin).

On top of that, just two months ago in this paper (joint with Han Lyu), we showed that the remarkable independence heuristic by I. J. Good for the number of contingency tables, fails badly even for nearly all uniform marginals. This is not exactly disproof of a conjecture, but it’s close, since the heuristic was introduced back in 1950 and continues to work well in practice.

In addition, I am currently working on disproving two more old conjectures which will remain unnamed until the time we actually resolve them (which might never happen, of course). In summary, I am deeply vested in disproving conjectures. The reasons why are somewhat complicated (see some of them below). But whatever my reasons, I demand and naively fully expect that my disproofs be treated on par with proofs, regardless whether this expectation bears any relation to reality.

My favorite disproofs and counterexamples:

There are many. Here are just a few, some famous and some not-so-famous, in historical order:

  1. Fermat‘s conjecture (letter to Pascal, 1640) on primality of Fermat numbers, disproved by Euler (1747)
  2. Tait’s conjecture (1884) on hamiltonicity of graphs of simple 3-polytopes, disproved by W.T. Tutte (1946)
  3. General Burnside Problem (1902) on finiteness of periodic groups, resolved negatively by E.S. Golod (1964)
  4. Keller’s conjecture (1930) on tilings with unit hypercubes, disproved by Jeff Lagarias and Peter Shor (1992)
  5. Borsuk’s Conjecture (1932) on partitions of convex sets into parts of smaller diameter, disproved by Jeff Kahn and Gil Kalai (1993)
  6. Hirsch Conjecture (1957) on the diameter of graphs of convex polytopes, disproved by Paco Santos (2010)
  7. Woods’s conjecture (1972) on the covering radius of certain lattices, disproved by Oded Regev, Uri Shapira and Barak Weiss (2017)
  8. Connes embedding problem (1976), resolved negatively by Zhengfeng Ji, Anand Natarajan, Thomas Vidick, John Wright and Henry Yuen (2020)

In all these cases, the disproofs and counterexamples didn’t stop the research. On the contrary, they gave a push to further (sometimes numerous) developments in the area.

Why should you disprove conjectures?

There are three reasons, of different nature and importance.

First, disproving conjectures is opportunistic. As mentioned above, people seem to try proving much harder than they try disproving. This creates niches of opportunity for an open-minded mathematician.

Second, disproving conjectures is beautiful. Let me explain. Conjectures tend to be rigid, as in “objects of the type pqr satisfy property abc.” People like me believe in the idea of “universality“. Some might call it “completeness” or even “Murphy’s law“, but the general principle is always the same. Namely: it is not sufficient that one wishes that all pqr satisfy abc to actually believe in the implication; rather, there has to be a strong reason why abc should hold. Barring that, pqr can possibly be almost anything, so in particular non-abc. While some would argue that non-abc objects are “ugly” or at least “not as nice” as abc, the idea of universality means that your objects can be of every color of the rainbow — nice color, ugly color, startling color, quiet color, etc. That kind of palette has its own sense of beauty, but it’s an acquired taste I suppose.

Third, disproving conjectures is constructive. It depends on the nature of the conjecture, of course, but one is often faced with necessity to construct a counterexample. Think of this as an engineering problem of building some pqr which at the same time is not abc. Such construction, if at all possible, might be difficult, time consuming and computer assisted. But so what? What would you rather do: build a mile-high skyscraper (none exist yet) or prove that this is impossible? Curiously, in CS Theory both algorithms and (many) complexity results are constructive (you need gadgets). Even the GCT is partially constructive, although explaining that would take us awhile.

What should the institutions do?

If you are an institution which awards prizes, stop with the legal nonsense: “We award […] only for a publication of a proof in a top journal”. You need to set up a scientific committee anyway, since otherwise it’s hard to tell sometimes if someone deserves a prize. With mathematicians you can expect anything anyway. Some would post two arXiv preprints, give a few lectures and then stop answering emails. Others would publish only in a journal where they are Editor-in-Chief. It’s stranger than fiction, really.

What you should do is say in the official rules: “We have [this much money] and an independent scientific committee which will award any progress on [this problem] partially or in full as they see fit.” Then a disproof or an independence result will receive just as much as the proof (what’s done is done, what else are you going to do with the money?) This would also allow some flexibility for partial solutions. Say, somebody proves Goldbach’s Conjecture for integers > exp(exp(10100000)), way way beyond computational powers for the remaining integers to be checked. I would give this person at least 50% of the prize money, leaving the rest for future developments of possibly many people improving on the bound. However, under the old prize rules such person gets bupkes for their breakthrough.

What should the journals do?

In short, become more open to results of computational and experimental nature. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a summary of Zeilberger’s Opinions, viewed charitably. He is correct on this. This includes publishing results of the type “Based on computational evidence we believe in the following UVW conjecture” or “We develop a new algorithm which confirms the UVW conjecture for n<13″. These are still contributions to mathematics, and the journals should learn to recognize them as such.

To put in context of our theme, it is clear that a lot more effort has been placed on proofs than on finding counterexamples. However, in many areas of mathematics there are no small counterexamples, so a heavy computational effort is crucial for any hope of finding one. Such work is not be as glamorous as traditional papers. But really, when it comes to standards, if a journal is willing to publish the study of something like the “null graphs“, the ship has sailed for you…

Let me give you a concrete example where a computational effort is indispensable. The curious Lovász conjecture states that every finite connected vertex-transitive graph contains a Hamiltonian path. This conjecture got to be false. It hits every red flag — there is really no reason why pqr = “vertex transitive” should imply abc = “Hamiltonian”. The best lower bound for the length of the longest (self-avoiding) path is only about square root of the number of vertices. In fact, even the original wording by Lovász shows he didn’t believe the conjecture is true (also, I asked him and he confirmed).

Unfortunately, proving that some potential counterexample is not Hamiltonian is computationally difficult. I once had an idea of one (a nice cubic Cayley graph on “only” 3600 vertices), but Bill Cook quickly found a Hamiltonian cycle dashing my hopes (it was kind of him to look into this problem). Maybe someday, when the TSP solvers are fast enough on much larger graphs, it will be time to return to this problem and thoroughly test it on large Cayley graphs. But say, despite long odds, I succeed and find a counterexample. Would a top journal publish such a paper?

Editor’s dilemma

There are three real criteria for evaluation a solution of an open problem by the journal:

  1. Is this an old, famous, or well-studied problem?
  2. Are the tools interesting or innovative enough to be helpful in future studies?
  3. Are the implications of the solution to other problems important enough?

Now let’s make a hypothetical experiment. Let’s say a paper is submitted to a top math journal which solves a famous open problem in Combinatorics. Further, let’s say somebody already proved it is equivalent to a major problem in TCS. This checks criteria 1 and 3. Until not long ago it would be rejected regardless, so let’s assume this is happening relatively recently.

Now imagine two parallel worlds, where in the first world the conjecture is proved on 2 pages using beautiful but elementary linear algebra, and in the second world the conjecture is disproved on a 2 page long summary of a detailed computational search. So in neither world we have much to satisfy criterion 2. Now, a quiz: in which world the paper will be published?

If you recognized that the first world is a story of Hao Huang‘s elegant proof of the induced subgraphs of hypercubes conjecture, which implies the sensitivity conjecture. The Annals published it, I am happy to learn, in a welcome break with the past. But unless we are talking about some 200 year old famous conjecture, I can’t imagine the Annals accepting a short computational paper in the second world. Indeed, it took a bit of a scandal to accept even the 400 year old Kepler’s conjecture which was proved in a remarkable computational work.

Now think about this. Is any of that fair? Shouldn’t we do better as a community on this issue?

What do other people do?

Over the years I asked a number of people about the uncertainty created by the conjectures and what do they do about it. The answers surprised me. Here I am paraphrasing them:

Some were dumbfounded: “What do you mean this conjecture could be false? It has to be true, otherwise nothing I am doing make much sense.”

Others were simplistic: “It’s an important conjecture. Famous people said it’s true. It’s my job to prove it.”

Third were defensive: “Do you really think this conjecture could be wrong? Why don’t you try to disprove it then? We’ll see who is right.”

Fourth were biblical: “I tend to work 6 days a week towards the proof and one day towards the disproof.”

Fifth were practical: “I work on the proof until I hit a wall. I use the idea of this obstacle to try constructing potential counterexamples. When I find an approach to discard such counterexamples, I try to generalize the approach to continue working on the proof. Continue until either side wins.”

If the last two seem sensible to you to, that’s because they are. However, I bet fourth are just grandstanding — no way they actually do that. The fifth sound great when this is possible, but that’s exceedingly rare, in my opinion. We live in a technical age when proving new results often requires great deal of effort and technology. You likely have tools and intuition to work in only one direction. Why would you want to waste time working in another?

What should you do?

First, remember to make conjectures. Every time you write a paper, tell a story of what you proved. Then tell a story of what you wanted to prove but couldn’t. State it in the form of a conjecture. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, or be right but oversharing your ideas. It’s a downside, sure. But the upside is that your conjecture might prove very useful to others, especially young researchers. In might advance the area, or help you find a collaborator to resolve it.

Second, learn to check your conjectures computationally in many small cases. It’s important to give supporting evidence so that others take your conjectures seriously.

Third, learn to make experiments, explore the area computationally. That’s how you make new conjectures.

Fourth, understand yourself. Your skill, your tools. Your abilities like problem solving, absorbing information from the literature, or making bridges to other fields. Faced with a conjecture, use this knowledge to understand whether at least in principle you might be able to prove or disprove a conjecture.

Fifth, actively look for collaborators. Those who have skills, tools, or abilities you are missing. More importantly, they might have a different POV on the validity of the conjecture and how one might want to attack it. Argue with them and learn from them.

Sixth, be brave and optimistic! Whether you decide to prove, disprove a conjecture, or simply state a new conjecture, go for it! Ignore the judgements by the likes of Sarnak and Zeilberger. Trust me — they don’t really mean it.

What if math dies?

April 7, 2019 2 comments

Over the years I’ve heard a lot about the apparent complete uselessness and inapplicability of modern mathematics, about how I should always look for applications since without them all I am doing is a pointless intellectual pursuit, blah, blah, blah.  I had strangers on the plane telling me this (without prompting), first dates (never to become second dates) wondering if “any formulas changed over the last 100 years, and if not what’s the point“, relatives asking me if I ever “invented a new theorem“, etc.

For whatever reason, everyone always has an opinion about math.  Having never been accused of excessive politeness I would always abruptly change the subject or punt by saying that the point is “money in my Wells Fargo account“.  I don’t even have a Wells Fargo account (and wouldn’t want one), but what’s a small lie when you are telling a big lie, right?

Eventually, you do develop a thicker skin, I suppose.  You learn to excuse your friends as well meaning but uneducated, journalists as maliciously ignorant, and strangers as bitter over some old math learning experience (which they also feel obliged to inform you about).  However, you do expect some understanding and respect from fellow academics. “Never compare fields” Gian-Carlo Rota teaches, and it’s a good advice you expect sensible people to adhere.  Which brings me to this:

The worst idea I’ve heard in a while

In a recent interview with Glenn Loury, a controversial UPenn law professor Amy Wax proposed to reduce current mathematics graduate programs to one tenth or one fifteenth of their current size (start at 54.30, see also partial transcript).  Now, I get it.  He is a proud member of the “intellectual dark web“, while she apparently hates liberal education establishment and wants to rant about it.  And for some reason math got lumped into this discussion.  To be precise, Loury provoked Wax without offering his views, but she was happy to opine in response.  I will not quote the discussion in full, but the following single sentence is revealing and worth addressing:

If we got rid of ninety percent of the math Ph.D. programs, would we really be worse off in any material respect?  I think that’s a serious question.

She followed this up with “I am not advocating of getting rid of a hundred percent of them.”  Uhm, thanks, I guess…

The inanity of it all

One is tempted to close ranks and ridicule this by appealing to authority or common sense.  In fact, just about everyone — from Hilbert to Gowers — commented on the importance of mathematics both as an intellectual endeavor and the source of applications.  In the US, we have about 1500-2000 new math Ph.D.’s every year, and according to the AMS survey, nearly all of them find jobs within a year (over 50% in academia, some in the industry, some abroad).

In fact, our math Ph.D. programs are the envy of the world.  For example, of the top 20 schools worldwide between 12 and 15 are occupied by leading US programs depending on the ranking (see e.g. here or there for recent examples, or more elsewhere).  Think about it: math requires no capital investment or infrastructure at all, so with the advent of personal computing, internet and the arXiv, there are little or no entry barriers to the field.  Any university in the world can compete with the US schools, yet we are still on the top of the rankings.  It is bewildering then, why would you even want to kill these super successful Ph.D. programs?

More infrastructurally, if there are drastic cuts to the Ph.D. programs in the US, who would be the people that can be hired to teach mathematics by the thousands of colleges whose students want to be math majors?  The number of the US math majors is already over 40,000 a year and keep growing at over 5% a year driven in part by the higher salary offerings and lifetime income (over that of other majors).  Don’t you think that the existing healthy supply and demand in the market for college math educators already determined the number of math Ph.D.’s we need to produce?

Well, apparently Wax doesn’t need convincing in the importance of math.  “I am the last person to denigrate pure mathematics.  It is a glory of mankind…”   She just doesn’t want people doing new research.  Or something.  As in “enough already.”  Think about it and transfer this thought to other areas.  Say — no new music is necessary — Bach and Drake said it all.  Or — no new art is necessary — Monet and Warhol were so prolific, museums don’t really have space for new works.  Right…

Economics matters

Let’s ask a different question: why would you want to close Ph.D. programs when they actually make money?  Take UCLA.  We are a service department, which makes a lot of money from teaching all kinds of undergraduate math courses + research grants both federal, state and industrial.  Annually, we graduate over 600 students with different types of math/stat majors, which constitutes about 1.6% of national output, the most of all universities.

Let’s say our budget is $25 mil (I don’t recall the figures), all paid for.  That would be out of UCLA budget of $7.5 billion of which less than 7% are state contributions.  Now compare these with football stadiums costs which are heavily subsidized and run into hundreds of millions of dollars.  If you had to cut the budget, is math where you start?

Can’t we just ignore these people?

Well, yes we can.  I am super happy to dismiss hurried paid-by-the-word know-nothing journalists or some anonymous YouTube comments.  But Amy Wax is neither.  She is smart and very accomplished:  summa cum laude from Yale, M.D. cum laude from Harvard Medical School, J.D. from Columbia Law School where she was an editor of Columbia Law Review, argued 15 cases in the US Supreme Court, is a named professor at UPenn Law School, has dozens of published research papers in welfare, labor and family law and economics.  Yep.

One can then argue — she knows a lot of other stuff, but nothing about math.  She is clearly controversial, and others don’t say anything of that nature, so who cares.  That sounds right, but so what?  Being known as controversial is like license to tell “the truth”…  er… what they really think.  Which can include silly things based on no research into our word.  This means there are numerous other people who probably also think that way but are wise enough or polite enough not to say it.  We need to fight this perception!

And yes, sometimes these people get into positions of power and decide to implement the changes.  Two cases are worth mentioning: the University of Rochester failed attempt to close its math Ph.D. program, and the Brown University fiasco.  The latter is well explained in the “Mathematical Apocrypha Redux” (see the relevant section here) by the inimitable Steven Krantz.  Rating-wise, this was a disaster for Brown — just read the Krantz’s description.

The Rochester story is rather well documented and is a good case of study for those feeling too comfortable.  Start with this Notices article, proceed to NY Times, then to protest description, and this followup in the Notices again.  Good news, right?  Well, I know for a fact that other administrators are also making occasional (largely unsuccessful) moves to do this, but I can’t name them, I am afraid.

Predictable apocalypse

Let’s take Amy Wax’s proposal seriously, and play out what would happen if 90-93% of US graduate programs in mathematics are closed on January 1, 2020.  By law.  Say, the US Congress votes to deny all federal funds to universities if they maintain a math Ph.D. program, except for the top 15 out of about 180 graduate programs according to US News.  Let’s ignore the legal issues this poses.  Just note that there are various recent and older precedents of federal government interfering with state and private schools (sometimes for a good cause).

Let’s just try to quickly game out what would happen.  As with any post-apocalyptic fiction, I will not provide any proofs or reasoning.  But it’s all “reality based”, as two such events did happened to mathematicians in the last century, one of them deeply affecting me: the German “academic reforms” in late 1930s (see e.g. here or there), and the Russian exodus in early 1990s (see e.g. here or there, or there).  Another personally familiar story is an implosion of mathematics at Bell Labs in late 1990s.  Although notable, it’s on a much smaller scale and to my knowledge has not been written about (see the discussion here, part 6).

First, there will be huge exodus of distinguished mathematics faculty from school outside of the 15 schools.  These include members of the National Academy of Sciences, numerous ICM speakers, other award winners, etc.  Some will move overseas (Canada, Europe, Japan, China, etc.), some will retire, some leave academia.  Some will simply stop doing research given the lack of mathematical activity at the department and no reward for doing research.

Second, outside of top 15, graduate programs in other subjects notice falling applications resulting in their sliding in world ranking.  These include other physical sciences, economics and computer science.  Then biological and social sciences start suffering.  These programs start having their own exodus to top 15 school and abroad.

Third, given the sliding of graduate programs across the board, the undergraduate education goes into decline across the country.  Top US high school students start applying to school abroad. Many eventually choose to stay in these countries who welcome their stem excellence.

Fourth, the hitech, fintech and other science heavy industries move abroad closer to educated employees.  United States loses its labor market dominance and starts bleeding jobs across all industries.   The stocks and housing market dip down.

Fifth, under strong public pressure the apocalyptic law is repealed and all 180 Ph.D. programs are reinstated with both state and federal financial support.  To everyone’s surprise, nobody is moving back.  Turns out, destroying is much faster and easier than rebuilding, as both Germany and Russia discovered back in the 20th century.  From that point on, January 1, 2020 became known as the day the math died.

Final message:

Dear Amy Wax and Glenn Loury!  Please admit that you are wrong.  Or at least plead ignorance and ask for forgiveness.  I don’t know if you will ever see this post or have any interest in debating the proposition I quoted, but I am happy to do this with you.  Any time, any place, any style.  Because the future of academia is important to all of us.