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How I chose Enumerative Combinatorics

June 12, 2022 1 comment

Apologies for not writing anything for awhile. After Feb 24, the math part of the “life and math” slogan lost a bit of relevance, while the actual events were stupefying to the point when I had nothing to say about the life part. Now that the shock subsided, let me break the silence by telling an old personal story which is neither relevant to anything happening right now nor a lesson to anyone. Sometimes a story is just a story…

My field

As the readers of this blog know, I am a Combinatorialist. Not a “proud one”. Just “a combinatorialist”. To paraphrase a military slogan “there are many fields like this one, but this one is mine”. While I’ve been defending my field for years, writing about its struggles, and often defining it, it’s not because this field is more important than others. Rather, because it’s so frequently misunderstood.

In fact, I have worked in other (mostly adjacent) fields, but that was usually because I was curious. Curious what’s going on in other areas, curious if they had tools to help me with my problems. Curious if they had problems that could use my tools. I would go to seminars in other fields, read papers, travel to conferences, make friends. Occasionally this strategy paid off and I would publish something in another field. Much more often nothing ever came out of that. It was fun regardless.

Anyway, I wanted to work in combinatorics for as long as I can remember, since I was about 15 or so. There is something inherently discrete about the way I see the world, so much that having additional structure is just obstructing the view. Here is how Gian-Carlo Rota famously put it:

Combinatorics is an honest subject. […] You either have the right number or you haven’t. You get the feeling that the result you have discovered is forever, because it’s concrete. [Los Alamos Science, 1985]

I agree. Also, I really like to count. When prompted, I always say “I work in Combinatorics” even if sometimes I really don’t. But in truth, the field is much too large and not unified, so when asked to be more specific (this rarely happens) I say “Enumerative Combinatorics“. What follows is a short story of how I made the choice.

Family vacation

When I was about 18, Andrey Zelevinsky (ז״ל) introduced me and Alex Postnikov to Israel Gelfand and asked what should we be reading if we want to do combinatorics. Unlike most leading mathematicians in Russia, Gelfand had a surprisingly positive view on the subject (see e.g. his quotes here). He suggested we both read Macdonald’s book, which was translated into Russian by Zelevinsky himself just a few years earlier. The book was extremely informative but dry as a fig and left little room for creativity. I read a large chunk of it and concluded that if this is what modern combinatorics looks like, I want to have nothing to do with it. Alex had a very different impression, I think.

Next year, my extended family decided to have a vacation on a Russian “river cruise”. I remember a small passenger boat which left Moscow river terminal, navigated a succession of small rivers until it reached Volga. From there, the boat had a smooth gliding all the way to the Caspian Sea. The vacation was about three weeks of a hot Summer torture with the only relief served by mouth-watering fresh watermelons.

What made it worse, there was absolutely nothing to see. Much of the way Volga is enormously wide, sometimes as wide as the English channel. Most of the time you couldn’t even see the river banks. The cities distinguished themselves only by an assortment of Lenin statues, but were unremarkable otherwise. Volgograd was an exception with its very impressive tallest statue in Europe, roughly as tall as the Statue of Liberty when combined with its pedestal. Impressive for sure, but not worth the trip. Long story short, the whole cruise vacation was dreadfully boring.

One good book can make a difference

While most of my relatives occupied themselves by reading crime novels or playing cards, I was reading a math book, the only book I brought with me. This was Stanley’s Enumerative Combinatorics (vol. 1) whose Russian translation came out just a few months earlier. So I read it cover-to-cover, but doing only the easiest exercises just to make sure I understand what’s going on. That book changed everything…

Midway through, when I was reading about linear extensions of posets in Ch. 3 with their obvious connections to standard Young tableaux and the hook-length formula (which I already knew by then), I had an idea. From Macdonald’s book, I remembered the q-analogue of #SYT via the “charge“, a statistics introduced by Lascoux and Schützenberger to give a combinatorial interpretation of Kostka polynomials, and which works even for skew Young diagram shapes. I figured that skew shapes are generic enough, and there should be a generalization of the charge to all posets. After several long days filled with some tedious calculations by hand, I came up with both the statement and the proof of the q-analogue of the number of linear extensions.

I wrote the proof neatly in my notebook with a clear intent to publish my “remarkable discovery”, and continued reading. In Ch. 4, all of a sudden, I read the “P-partition theory” that I just invented by myself. It came with various applications and connections to other problems, and was presented so well, much nicer than I would have!

After some extreme disappointment, I learned from the notes that the P-partition theory was a large portion of Stanley’s own Ph.D. thesis, which he wrote before I was born. For a few hours, I did nothing but meditate, staring at the vast water surrounding me and ignoring my relatives who couldn’t care less what I was doing anyway. I was trying to think if there is a lesson in this fiasco.

It pays to be positive and self-assure, I suppose, in a way that only a teenager can be. That day I concluded that I am clearly doing something right, definitely smarter than everyone else even if born a little too late. More importantly, I figured that Enumerative Combinatorics done “Stanley-style” is really the right area for me…

Epilogue

I stopped thinking that I am smarter than everyone else within weeks, as soon as I learned more math. I no longer believe I was born too late. I did end up doing a lot of Enumerative Combinatorics. Much later I became Richard Stanley’s postdoc for a short time and a colleague at MIT for a long time. Even now, I continue writing papers on the numbers of linear extensions and standard Young tableaux. Occasionally, I also discuss their q-analogues (like in my most recent paper). I still care and it’s still the right area for me…

Some years later I realized that historically, the “charge” and Stanley’s q-statistics were not independent in a sense that both are generalizations of the major index by Percy MacMahon. In his revision of vol. 1, Stanley moved the P-partition theory up to Ch. 3, where it belongs IMO. In 2001, he received the Steele’s Prize for Mathematical Exposition for the book that changed everything…

The problem with combinatorics textbooks

July 3, 2021 Leave a comment

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

What’s wrong with Combinatorics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courses and textbooks

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

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

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

My own teaching

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

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

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

Combinatorics of posets (Fall 2020)

Combinatorics and Probability on groups (Spring 2020)

Algebraic Combinatorics (Winter 2019)

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

Combinatorics of Integer Sequences (Fall 2016)

Combinatorics of Words (Fall 2014)

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

In summary

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

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

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

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

ICM Paper

March 14, 2018 3 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.