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The Unity of Combinatorics

April 10, 2021 Leave a 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 Leave a comment

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 3 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 4 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.

The status quo of math publishing

March 18, 2019 2 comments

We all like the status quo.  It’s one of my favorite statuses…  The status quo is usually excellent or at least good enough.  It’s just so tempting to do nothing at all that we tend to just keep it.  For years and years which turn into decades.  Until finally the time has come to debate it…

Some say the status quo on math publishing is unsustainable.  That the publishers are much too greedy, that we do all the work and pay twice, that we should boycott the most outrageous of these publishers, that the University of California, German, HungaryNorway and Swedish library systems recent decisions are a watershed moment calling for action, etc.  My own institution (UCLA) is actually the leader in the movement.  While I totally agree with the sentiment, I mostly disagree with the boycott(s) as currently practiced and other proposed measures.  It comes from a position of weakness and requires major changes to the status quo.

Having been thinking about this all for awhile, I am now very optimistic.  In fact, there is a way we can use our natural position of strength to achieve all the goals we want while keeping the status quo.  It may seem hard to believe, but with a few simple measures we can get there in a span of a few years.  This post is a long explanation of how and why we do this.

What IS the current status quo?

In mathematics, it’s pretty simple.  We, the mathematicians, do most of the work:  produce a decent looking .pdf file, perform a peer review on a largely volunteer basis (some editors do get paid occasionally), disseminate the results as best as we can, and lobby our libraries to buy the journal subscriptions.  The journals collect the copyright forms, make minor edits to the paper to conform to their favorite style, print papers on paper, mail them to the libraries, post the .pdf files on the internet accessible via library website, and charge libraries outrageous fees for these services.  They also have armies of managers, lawyers, shareholders, etc. to protect the status quo.

Is it all good or bad?  It’s mostly good, really.  We want all these basic services, just disagree on the price.  There is an old Russian Jewish proverb, that if a problem can be solved with money — it’s not a real problem but a business expense (here is a modern version).  So we should deal with predatory pricing as a business issue and not get emotional by boycotting selective journals or publishers.  We can argue for price decreases completely rationally, by showing that their product lost 90%, but not all its value, and that it’s in our common interest to devalue it, but not kill it.

Why keep the status quo?

This is easy.  We as a community tend to like our journals more than we hate them.  They compete for our papers.  We compete with each other to get published in best places.  This means we as a community know which journals are good, better or best in every area, or in the whole field of mathematics.  This means that each journal has composed the best editorial board it could.  It would be a waste to let this naturally formed structures go.

Now, in the past I strongly criticized top journals, the whole publishing industry, made fun of it, and more recently presented an ethical code of conduct for all journals.   Yet it’s clear that the cost of complete destruction of existing journal nomenclature is too high to pay and thus unlikely to happen.

Why changing the status quo is impractical?

Consider the alternatives.  Yes, the editorial board resignations do happen, most recently in the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics (JACO) which resigned in mass to form a journal named Algebraic Combinatorics (ALCO) But despite laudations, the original journal exists and doing fine or at least ok.  To my dismay and mild disbelief, the new Editorial Board of JACO has some well-known and wildly respected people.  Arguably, this is not the outcome the resigners aimed for (for the record, I published twice in JACO and recently had a paper accepted by ALCO).

Now, at first, starting new journals may seems like a great idea.  Unfortunately, by the conservative nature of academia they always struggle to get off the ground.  Some survive, such as EJC or EJP, have been pioneers in the area, but others are not doing so well.  The fine print is also an issue — the much hyped Pi and Sigma charge $1000 per article for “processing”, whatever that entails.   Terry Tao wrote that these journals suggest “alternatives to the status quo”.  Maybe.  But how exactly is that an improvement?  (Again, for the record, I published in both EJC, EJP, and recently in Sigma.  No, I didn’t pay, but let me stay on point here — that story can wait for another time.)

Other alternatives are even less effective.  Boycotting selective publishers gives a free reign to others to charge a lot, at the time when we need a systemic change.  I believe that it gives all but the worst publishers the cover they need to survive, while the worst already have enough power to survive and remain in the lead.  There is a long argument here I am trying to avoid.  Having had it with Mark Wilson, I know it would overwhelm this post.  Let me not rebut it thoroughly point-by-point, but present my own vision.

What can we do?

Boycott them all!  I mean all non-free journals, at all times, at all cost.  By that I don’t mean everyone should avoid submission, refereeing, being on the editorial board.  Not at all, rather opposite.  Please do NOT boycott anyone specifically, proceed with your work, keep the status quo.

What I mean is this.  Boycott all non-free journals as a consumer!  Do NOT download papers from journal websites.  I will give detailed suggestions below, after I explained my rationale.  In short, every time you download a paper from the journal website it gives publishers leverage to claim they are indispensable, and gives libraries the fear of faculty revolt if they unsubscribe.  They (both the publishers and the libraries) have no idea how little we need the paid journal websites.

Detailed advice on how to boycott all math journal publishers

Follow the following simple rules.  On your side as an author, make every(!) paper you ever wrote freely accessible.  Not just the latest – all of them!  Put them on the arXiv, viXra, your own website, or anywhere you like as long as the search engines can find them.  If you don’t know how, ask for help.  If you can read this WP blog post, you can also post your papers on some WP site.  If you are afraid of the copyright, snap out of it!  I do this routinely, of course.  Many greats have also done this for all their papers, e.g. Noga Alon and Richard Stanley.  Famously, all papers by Paul Erdős are online.  So my message for all of you reading this: if you don’t have all your papers free online, go ahead, just post them all!  Yes, that means right now!  Stop reading and come back when you are done.

Now, for reading papers the rules are more complicated.   Every time you need to download an article, don’t go to MathSciNet.  Instead, google it first.  Google Scholar usually gives you multiple options on the download location.  Choose the one in the arXiv or author’s website.  Done.

If you fail, but feel the paper could be available from some nefarious copyright violating websites, consider using Yandex, DuckDuckGo, or other search engines which are less concerned about the copyright.

Now, suppose the only location is the journal website.  Often, this happens when the paper is old or old-ish, i.e. outside the 4 year sliding window for Elsevier.  As far as I am concerned, this part of the publisher is “free” since anyone in the world can download it without charge.  Make sure you download the paper without informing your campus library.  This is easy off campus — use any browser without remote access (VPN).  On campus, use a browser masking your ip address, i.e. the Opera.

Now, suppose nothing works.  Say, the paper is recent but inaccessible for free.  Then email to the authors and request the file of paper.  Shame them into putting the paper online while you are at it.   Forward them this blog post, perhaps.

Suppose now the paper is inaccessible for free, but the authors are non-responsive and unlikely to ever make the paper available.  Well, ok — download it from the journal website then via your library.  But then be a mensch.  Post the paper online.  Yes, in violation of copyright.  Yes, other people already do it.  Yes, everyone is downloading them and would be grateful.  No, they won’t fight us all.

Finally, suppose you create a course website.  Make sure all or at least most of your links are to free version of the articles.  Download them all and repost them on your course website so the students can bypass the library redirect.  Every bit helps.

Why would this work?  I.  Shaming is powerful.

Well, in mathematics shaming is widespread and actually works except in some extreme cases.  It’s routine, in fact, to shame authors for not filling gaps in their proofs, for not acknowledging priority, or for not retracting incorrect papers (when the authors refuse to do it, the journals can also be shamed).  Sometimes the shaming doesn’t work.  Here is my own example of shaming fail (rather extreme, unfortunately), turned shaming success on pages of this blog.

More broadly, public shaming is one of the key instruments in the 21st century.  Mathbabe (who is writing a book about shaming) notably shamed Mochizuki for not traveling around to defend his papers.   Harron famously shamed white cis men for working in academia.  Again, maybe not in all cases, but in general public shaming works rather well, and there is a lot of shaming happening everywhere.  

So think about it — what if we can shame every working mathematician into posting all their papers online?  We can then convince libraries that we don’t need to renew all our math journal subscriptions since we can function perfectly well without them.  Now, we would still want the journal to function, but are prepared to spend maybe 10-15% of the prices that Springer and Elsevier currently charge.  Just don’t renew the contract otherwise.  Use the savings to hire more postdocs, new faculty, give students more scholarships to travel to conferences, make new Summer research opportunities, etc.

Why would this work?  II.  Personal perspective.

About a year ago I bought a new laptop and decided to follow some of the rules above as an experiment.  The results were surprisingly good.  I had to download some old non-free papers from  publisher sites maybe about 4-5 times a month.  I went to the library about once every couple of months.  For new papers, I emailed the authors maybe the total of about once every three months, getting the paper every time.  I feel I could have emailed more often, asking for old papers as well.

Only occasionally (maybe once a month) I had to resort to overseas paper depositaries, all out of laziness — it’s faster than walking to the library.  In summary — it’s already easy to be a research mathematician without paying for journals.  In the future, it will get even easier.

Why would this work?  III.  Librarian perspective.

Imagine you are a head librarian responsible for journal contracts and purchasing.   You have access to the download data and you realize that many math journals continue to be useful and even popular.  The publishers bring you a similar or possibly more inflated date showing their products in best light.  Right now you have no evidence the journals are largely useless are worried about backslash which would happen if you accidentally cut down on popular journals.  So you renew just about everything that your library has always been subscribing and skip on subscribing to new journals unless you get special requests for the faculty that you should.

Now imagine that in 2-3 years your data suggests rapidly decreasing popularity of the journals.  You make a projection that the downloads will decrease by a factor of 10 within a few more years.  That frees you from worrying about cancelling subscriptions and gives you strong leverage in negotiating.  Ironically that also helps you keeps the status quo — the publishers slash their price but you can keep most of the subscriptions.

Why would this work?  IV.  Historical perspective.

The history is full of hard fought battles which were made obsolete by cultural and technological changes.  The examples include the “war of the currents“, the “war” of three competing NYC subway systems, same with multiple US railroads, the “long-distance price war“, the “browser war” and the “search engine war“.  They were all very different and resolved in many different ways, but have two things in common — they were ruthless at the time, and nobody cares anymore.  Even the airlines keep slashing prices, making services indistinguishably awful to the point of becoming near-utilities like electric and gas companies.

The same will happen to the journal publishing empires.  In fact, the necessary technology has been available for awhile — it’s the culture that needs to change.  Eventually all existing print journals will become glorified versions of arXiv overlay publications with substantially scaled down stuff and technical production.  Not by choice, of course — there is just no money in it.  Just like the airline travel — service will get worse, but much cheaper.

The publishers will continue to send print copies of journals to a few dozen libraries worldwide which will be immediately put into off-campus underground bunker-like storages as an anti-apocalyptic measure, and since the reader’s demand will be close to nonexistent.  They will remain profitable by cutting cost everywhere since apparently this is all we really care about.

The publishers already know that they are doomed, they just want to prolong the agony and extract as much rent as they can before turning into public utilities.  This is why the Elsevier refuses to budge with the UC and other systems.  They realize that publicly slashing prices for one customer today will lead to an avalanche of similar demands tomorrow, so they would rather forgo a few customers than start a revolution which would decimate their journal value in 5 years (duration of the Elsevier contract).

None of this is new, of course.  Odlyzko described it all back in 1997, in a remarkably prescient yet depressing article.  Unfortunately, we have been moving in the wrong direction.  Gowers is right that publishers cannot be shamed, but his efforts to shame people into boycotting Elsevier may be misplaced as it continues going strong.  The shaming did lead to the continuing conversation and the above mentioned four year sliding window which is the key to my proposal.

What’s happening now?  Why is Elsevier not budging?

As everyone who ever asked for a discount knows, you should do this privately, not publicly.  Very quietly slashing the prices by a factor of 2, then trying to play the same trick again in 5 years would have been smarter and satisfied everybody.  To further help Elsevier hide the losses from shareholders and general public, the library could have used some bureaucratic gimmicks like paying the same for many journals but getting new books for free or something like that.  This would further confuse everybody except professional negotiators on behalf of other library systems, thus still helping to push the prices down.

But the UC system wanted to lead a revolution with their public demands, so here we are, breaking the status quo for no real reason.  There are no winners here.  Even my aunt Bella from Odessa who used to take me regularly to Privoz Market to watch her bargain, could have told you that’s exactly what’s going to happen…

Again, the result is bad for everybody — the Elsevier would have been happier to get some money — less than the usual amount, but better than nothing given the trivial marginal costs.  At the same time, we at UCLA still need the occasional journal access while in the difficult transition period.

AMS, please step up!

There is one more bad actor in the whole publishing drama whose role needs to change.  I am speaking about the AMS, which is essentially a giant publishing house with an army of volunteers and a side business of organizing professional meetings.  Let’s looks at the numbers, the 2016 annual report (for some reason the last one available).  On p.12 we read: of the $31.8 mil operating revenue dues make up about 8%, meetings 4%, while publishing a whopping 68%.  No wonder the AMS is not pushing for changes in current journal pay structure — they are conflicted to the point of being complicit in preserving existing prices.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  On p.16 we see that the journals are fantastically profitable!  They raise $5.2 mil with $1.5 mil in operating expenses, a 247% profit margin.  With margins like that who wants to rock the boat?  Compare this with next item — books.  The AMS made $4.1 mil while spent $3.6 mil.  That’s a healthy 14% profit margin.  Nice, but nothing to write home about.  By its nature, the book market is highly competitive as libraries and individuals have option to buy them or not on a per title basis.  Thus, the competition.

If you think the AMS prices are lower than of other publishers, that’s probably right.  This very dated page by Kirby is helpful.  For example, in 1996, the PTRF (Springer) charged $2100, the Advances (Academic Press, now Elsevier) $1326, the Annals (Princeton Univ. Press) $200, while JAMS only $174.  Still…

What should be done?  Ideally, the AMS should sell its journal business to some university press and invest long-term the sale profits.  That would free it to pursue the widely popular efforts towards free publishing.  In reality that’s unlikely to happen, so perhaps some sort of “Chinese wall” separating journal publishing and the AMS political activities.  This “wall” might already exist, I wouldn’t know.  I am open to suggestions.  Either way, I think the AMS members should brace themselves for the future where the AMS has a little less money.  But since the MathSciNet alone brings 1/3 of the revenue, and other successful products like MathJobs are also money makers, I think the AMS will be fine.

I do have one pet peeve.  The MathSciNet, which is a good product otherwise, should have a “web search” button next to the “article” button.  The latter automatically takes you to the journal website, while the former would search the article on Google Scholar (or Microsoft Academic, I suppose, let the people choose a default).  This would help people circumvent the publishers by cutting down on clicks.

What gives?

I have always been a non-believer in boycotts of specific publishers, and I feel the history proved me more right than wrong.  People tend to avoid boycotts when they have significant cost, and without the overwhelming participation boycotts simply don’t work.  Asking people not to submit or referee for the leading journals in their fields is like asking to voluntarily pay higher taxes.  Some do this, of course, but most don’t, even those who generally agree with higher taxes as a good public policy.

In fact, I always thought we need some kind of one-line bill by the US Congress requiring all research made at every publicly funded university being available for free online.  In my conspiratorial imagination, the AMS being a large publisher refused to bring this up in its lobbying efforts, thus nothing ever happened.  While I still think this bill is a good idea, I no longer think it’s a necessary step.

Now I am finally optimistic that the boycott I am proposing is going to succeed.  The (nearly) free publishing is coming!  Please spread the word, everybody!

UPDATE (March 19, 2019):  Mark Wilson has a blog post commenting and clarifying ALCO vs. JACO situation.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate

September 14, 2018 21 comments

Here is a lengthy and somewhat detached followup discussion on the very unfortunate Hill’s affair, which is much commented by Tim Gowers, Terry Tao and many others (see e.g. links and comments on their blog posts).  While many seem to be universally distraught by the story and there are some clear disagreements on what happened, there are even deeper disagreements on what should have happened.  The latter question is the subject of this blog post.

Note:  Below we discuss both the ethical and moral aspects of the issue.  Be patient before commenting your disagreements until you finish the reading — there is a lengthy disclaimer at the end.

Review process:

  1. When the paper is submitted there is a very important email acknowledging receipt of the submission.  Large publishers have systems send such emails automatically.  Until this email is received, the paper is not considered submitted.  For example, it is not unethical for the author to get tired of waiting to hear from the journal and submit elsewhere instead.  If the journal later comes back and says “sorry for the wait, here are the reports”, the author should just inform the journal that the paper is under consideration elsewhere and should be considered withdrawn (this happens sometimes).
  2. Similarly, there is a very important email acknowledging acceptance of the submission.  Until this point the editors ethically can do as they please, even reject the paper with multiple positive reports.  Morality of the latter is in the eye of the beholder (cf. here), but there are absolutely no ethical issues here unless the editor violated the rules set up by the journal.  In principle, editors can and do make decisions based on informal discussions with others, this is totally fine.
  3. If a journal withdraws acceptance after the formal acceptance email is sent, this is potentially a serious violation of ethical standards.  Major exception: this is not unethical if the journal follows a certain procedural steps (see the section below).  This should not be done except for some extreme circumstances, such as last minute discovery of a counterexample to the main result which the author refuses to recognize and thus voluntarily withdraw the paper.   It is not immoral since until the actual publication no actual harm is done to the author.
  4. The next key event is publication of the article, whether online of in print, usually/often coupled with the transfer of copyright.  If the journal officially “withdraws acceptance” after the paper is published without deleting the paper, this is not immoral, but depends on the procedural steps as in the previous item.
  5. If a journal deletes the paper after the publication, online or otherwise, this is a gross violation of both moral and ethical standards.  The journals which do that should be ostracized regardless their reasoning for this act.  Major exception: the journal has legal reasoning, e.g. the author violated copyright laws by lifting from another published article as in the Dănuț Marcu case (see below).

Withdrawal process:

  1.  As we mentioned earlier, the withdrawal of accepted or published article should be extremely rare, only in extreme circumstances such as a major math error for a not-yet-published article or a gross ethical violation by the author or by the handling editor of a published article.
  2. For a published article with a major math error or which was later discovered to be known, the journal should not withdraw the article but instead work with the author to publish an erratum or an acknowledgement of priority.  Here an erratum can be either fixing/modifying the results, or a complete withdrawal of the main claim.  An example of the latter is an erratum by Daniel Biss.  Note that the journal can in principle publish a note authored by someone else (e.g. this note by Mnёv in the case of Biss), but this should be treated as a separate article and not a substitute for an erratum by the author.  A good example of acknowledgement of priority is this one by Lagarias and Moews.
  3. To withdraw the disputed article the journal’s editorial board should either follow the procedure set up by the publisher or set up a procedure for an ad hoc committee which would look into the paper and the submission circumstances.  Again, if the paper is already published, only non-math issues such as ethical violations by the author, referee(s) and/or handling editor can be taken into consideration.
  4. Typically, a decision to form an ad hoc committee or call for a full editorial vote should me made by the editor in chief, at the request of (usually at least two) members of the editorial board.  It is totally fine to have a vote by the whole editorial board, even immediately after the issue was raised, but the threshold for successful withdrawal motion should be set by the publisher or agreed by the editorial board before the particular issue arises.  Otherwise, the decision needs to be made by consensus with both the handling editor and the editor in chief abstaining from the committee discussion and the vote.
  5. Examples of the various ways the journals act on withdrawing/retracting published papers can be found in the case of notorious plagiarist Dănuț Marcu.  For example, Geometria Dedicata decided not to remove Marcu’s paper but simply issued a statement, which I personally find insufficient as it is not a retraction in any formal sense.  Alternatively, SUBBI‘s apology is very radical yet the reasoning is completely unexplained. Finally, Soifer’s statement on behalf of Geombinatorics is very thorough, well narrated and quite decisive, but suffers from authoritarian decision making.
  6. In summary, if the process is set up in advance and is carefully followed, the withdrawal/retraction of accepted or published papers can be both appropriate and even desirable.  But when the process is not followed, such action can be considered unethical and should be avoided whenever possible.

Author’s rights and obligations:

  1. The author can withdraw the paper at any moment until publication.  It is also author’s right not to agree to any discussion or rejoinder.  The journal, of course, is under no obligation to ask the author’s permission to publish a refutation of the article.
  2. If the acceptance is issued, the author has every right not go along with the proposed quiet withdrawal of the article.  In this case the author might want to consider complaining to the editor in chief or the publisher making the case that the editors are acting inappropriately.
  3. Until acceptance is issued, the author should not publicly disclose the journal where the paper is submitted, since doing so constitutes a (very minor) moral violation.  Many would disagree on this point, so let me elaborate.  Informing the public of the journal submission is tempting people in who are competition or who have a negative opinion of the paper to interfere with the peer review process.  While virtually all people virtually all the time will act honorably and not contact the journal, such temptation is undesirable and easily avoidable.
  4. As soon as the acceptance or publication is issued, the author should make this public immediately, by the similar reasoning of avoiding temptation by the third parties (of different kind).

Third party outreach:

  1.  If the paper is accepted but not yet published, reaching out to the editor in chief by a third party requesting to publish a rebuttal of some kind is totally fine.  Asking to withdraw the paper for mathematical reasons is also fine, but should provide a clear formal math reasoning as in “Lemma 3 is false because…”  The editor then has a choice but not an obligation to trigger the withdrawal process.
  2. Asking to withdraw the not-yet-published paper without providing math reasoning, but saying something like “this author is a crank” or “publishing this paper will do bad for your reputation” is akin to bullying and thus a minor ethical violation.  The reason it’s minor is because it is journal’s obligations to ignore such emails.  Journal acting on such an email with rumors or unverified facts is an ethical violation on its own.
  3. If a third party learns about a publicly available paper which may or may not be an accepted submission with which they disagree for math or other reason, it it ethical to contact the author directly.  In fact, in case of math issues this is highly desirable.
  4. If a third party learns about a paper submission to a journal without being contacted to review it, and the paper is not yet accepted, then contacting the journal is a strong ethical violation.  Typically, the journal where the paper is submitted it not known to public, so the third party is acting on the information it should not have.  Every such email can be considered as an act of bullying no matter the content.
  5. In an unlikely case everything is as above but the journal’s name where the paper is submitted is publicly available, the third party can contact the journal.  Whether this is ethical or not depends on the wording of the email.  I can imagine some plausible circumstances when e.g. the third party knows that the author is Dănuț Marcu mentioned earlier.  In these rare cases the third party should make every effort to CC the email to everyone even remotely involved, such as all authors of the paper, the publisher, the editor in chief, and perhaps all members of the editorial board.  If the third party feels constrained by the necessity of this broad outreach then the case is not egregious enough, and such email is still bullying and thus unethical.
  6. Once the paper is published anyone can contact the journal for any reason since there is little can be done by the journal beyond what’s described above.  For example, on two different occasions I wrote to journals pointing out that their recently published results are not new and asking them to inform the authors while keeping my anonymity.  Both editors said they would.  One of the journals later published an acknowledgement of retribution.  The other did not.

Editor’s rights and obligations:

  1. Editors have every right to encourage submissions of papers to the journal, and in fact it’s part of their job.  It is absolutely ethical to encourage submissions from colleagues, close relatives, political friends, etc.  The publisher should set up a clear and unobtrusive conflict of interest directive, so if the editor is too close to the author or the subject he or she should transfer the paper to the editor in chief who will chose a different handling editor.
  2. The journal should have a clear scope worked out by the publisher in cooperation with the editorial board.  If the paper is outside of the scope it should be rejected regardless of its mathematical merit.  When I was an editor of Discrete Mathematics, I would reject some “proofs” of the Goldbach conjecture and similar results based on that reasoning.  If the paper prompts the journal to re-evaluate its scope, it’s fine, but the discussion should involve the whole editorial board and irrespective of the paper in question.  Presumably, some editors would not want to continue being on the board if the journal starts changing direction.
  3. If the accepted but not yet published paper seems to fall outside of the journal’s scope, other editors can request the editor in chief to initiate the withdrawal process discussed above.  The wording of request is crucial here – if the issue is neither the the scope nor the major math errors, but rather the weakness of results, then this is inappropriate.
  4. If the issue is the possibly unethical behavior of the handling editor, then the withdrawal may or may not be appropriate depending on the behavior, I suppose.  But if the author was acting ethically and the unethical behavior is solely by the handling editor, I say proceed to publish the paper and then issue a formal retraction while keeping the paper published, of course.

Complaining to universities:

  1. While perfectly ethical, contacting the university administration to initiate a formal investigation of a faculty member is an extremely serious step which should be avoided if at all possible.  Except for the egregious cases of verifiable formal violations of the university code of conduct (such as academic dishonesty), this action in itself is akin to bullying and thus immoral.
  2. The code of conduct is usually available on the university website – the complainer would do well to consult it before filing a complaint.  In particular, the complaint would typically be addressed to the university senate committee on faculty affairs, the office of academic integrity and/or dean of the faculty.  Whether the university president is in math or even the same area is completely irrelevant as the president plays no role in the working of the committee.  In fact, when this is the case, the president is likely to recuse herself or himself from any part of the investigation and severe any contacts with the complainer to avoid appearance of impropriety.
  3. When a formal complaint is received, the university is usually compelled to initiate an investigation and set up an ad hoc subcommittee of the faculty senate which thoroughly examines the issue.  Faculty’s tenure and life being is on the line.  They can be asked to retain legal representation and can be prohibited from discussing the matters of the case with outsiders without university lawyers and/or PR people signing on every communication.  Once the investigation is complete the findings are kept private except for administrative decisions such as firing, suspension, etc.  In summary, if the author seeks information rather than punishment, this is counterproductive.

Complaining to institutions:

  1. I don’t know what to make of the alleged NSF request, which could be ethical and appropriate, or even common.   Then so would be complaining to the NSF on a publicly available research product supported by the agency.  The issue is the opposite to that of the journals — the NSF is a part of the the Federal Government and is thus subject to a large number of regulations and code of conduct rules.  These can explain its request.  We in mathematics are rather fortunate that our theorems tend to lack any political implications in the real world.  But perhaps researchers in Political Science and Sociology have different experiences with granting agencies, I wouldn’t know.
  2. Contacting the AMS can in fact be rather useful, even though it currently has no way to conduct an appropriate investigation.  Put bluntly, all parties in the conflict can simply ignore AMS’s request for documents.  But maybe this should change in the future.  I am not a member of the AMS so have no standing in telling it what to do, but I do have some thoughts on the subject.  I will try to write them up at some point.

Public discourse:

  1. Many commenters on the case opined that while deleting a published paper is bad (I am paraphrasing), but the paper is also bad for whatever reason (politics, lack of strong math, editor’s behavior, being out of scope, etc.)  This is very unfortunate.  Let me explain.
  2. Of course, discussing math in the paper is perfectly ethical: academics can discuss any paper they like, this can be considered as part of the job.  Same with discussing the scope of the paper and the verifiable journal and other party actions.
  3. Publicly discussing personalities and motivation of the editors publishing or non-publishing, third parties contacting editors in chief, etc. is arguably unethical and can be perceived as borderline bullying.  It is also of questionable morality as no complete set of facts are known.
  4. So while making a judgement on the journal conduct next to the judgement on the math in the paper is ethical, it seems somewhat immoral to me.  When you write “yes, the journals’ actions are disturbing, but the math in the paper is poor” we all understand that while formally these are two separate discussions, the negative judgement in the second part can provide an excuse for misbehavior in the first part.  So here is my new rule:  If you would not be discussing the math in the paper without the pretext of its submission history, you should not be discussing it at all. 

In summary:

I argue that for all issues related to submissions, withdrawal, etc. there is a well understood ethical code of conduct.  Decisions on who behaved unethically hinge on formal details of each case.  Until these formalities are clarified, making judgements is both premature and unhelpful.

Part of the problem is the lack of clarity about procedural rules by the journals, as discussed above.  While large institutions such as major universities and long established journal publishers do have such rules set up, most journals tend not to disclose them, unfortunately.  Even worse, many new, independent and/or electronic journals have no such rules at all.  In such environment we are reduced to saying that this is all a failure to communicate.

Lengthy disclaimer:

  1. I have no special knowledge of what actually happened to Hill’s submission.  I outlined what I think should have happened in different scenarios if all participants acted morally and ethically (there are no legal issues here that I am aware of).  I am not trying to blame anyone and in fact, it is possible that none of these theoretical scenarios are applicable.  Yet I do think such a general discussion is useful as it distills the arguments.
  2. I have not read Hill’s paper as I think its content is irrelevant to the discussion and since I am deeply uninterested in the subject.  I am, however, interested in mathematical publishing and all academia related matters.
  3. What’s ethical and what’s moral are not exactly the same.  As far as this post is concerned, ethical issues cover all math research/university/academic related stuff.  Moral issues are more personal and community related, thus less universal perhaps.  In other words, I am presenting my own POV everywhere here.
  4. To give specific examples of the difference, if you stole your officemate’s lunch you acted immorally.  If you submitted your paper to two journals simultaneously you acted unethically.  And if you published a paper based on your officemate’s ideas she told you in secret, you acted both immorally and unethically.  Note that in the last example I am making a moral judgement since I equate this with stealing, while others might think it’s just unethical but morally ok.
  5. There is very little black & white about immoral/unethical acts, and one always needs to assign a relative measure of the perceived violation.  This is similar to criminal acts, which can be a misdemeanor, a gross misdemeanor, a felony, etc.

 

ICM Paper

March 14, 2018 2 comments

Well, I finally finished my ICM paper. It’s only 30 pp, but it took many sleepless nights to write and maybe about 10 years to understand what exactly do I want to say. The published version will be a bit shorter – I had to cut section 4 to satisfy their page limitations.

Basically, I give a survey of various recent and not-so-recent results in Enumerative Combinatorics around three major questions:

(1) What is a formula?
(2) What is a good bijection?
(3) What is a combinatorial interpretation?

Not that I answer these questions, but rather explain how one could answer them from computational complexity point of view. I tried to cover as much ground as I could without overwhelming the reader. Clearly, I had to make a lot of choices, and a great deal of beautiful mathematics had to be omitted, sometimes in favor of the Computational Combinatorics approach. Also, much of the survey surely reflects my own POV on the subject. I sincerely apologize to everyone I slighted and who disagrees with my opinion! Hope you still enjoy the reading.

Let me mention that I will wait for a bit before posting the paper on the arXiv. I very much welcome all comments and suggestions! Post them here or email privately.

P.S. In thinking of how approach this paper, I read a large number of papers in previous ICM proceedings, e.g. papers by Noga Alon, Mireille Bousquet-Mélou, Paul Erdős, Philippe Flajolet, Marc Noy, János Pach, Richard Stanley, Benny Sudakov, and many others. They are all terrific and worth reading even if just to see how the field has been changing over the years. I also greatly benefited from a short introductory article by Doron Zeilberger, which I strongly recommend.