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Posts Tagged ‘Unity of Combinatorics’

Are we united in anything?

February 10, 2022 5 comments

Unity here, unity there, unity shmunity is everywhere. You just can’t avoid hearing about it. Every day, no matter the subject, somebody is going to call for it. Be it in Ukraine or Canada, Taiwan or Haiti, everyone is calling for unity. President Biden in his Inaugural Address called for it eight times by my count. So did former President Bush on every recent societal issue: here, there, everywhere. So did Obama and Reagan. I am sure just about every major US politician made the same call at some point. And why not? Like the “world peace“, the unity is assumed to be a universal good, or at least an inspirational if quickly forgettable goal.

Take the Beijing Olympic Games, which proudly claims that their motto “demonstrates unity and a collective effort” towards “the goal of pursuing world unity, peace and progress”. Come again? While The New York Times isn’t buying the whole “world unity” thing and calls the games “divisive” it still thinks that “Opening Ceremony [is] in Search of Unity.” Vox is also going there, claiming that the ceremony “emphasized peace, world unity, and the people around the world who have battled the pandemic.” So it sounds to me that despite all the politics, both Vox and the Times think that this mythical unity is something valuable, right? Well, ok, good to know…

Closer to home, you see the same themes said about the International Congress of Mathematicians to be held in St. Petersburg later this year. Here is Arkady Dvorkovich, co-chair of the Executive Organizing Committee and former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia: “It seems to us that Russia will be able to truly unite mathematicians from all over the world“. Huh? Are you sure? Unite in what exactly? Because even many Russian mathematicians are not on board with having the ICM in St. Petersburg. And among those from “all over the world”, quite a few are very openly boycotting the congress, so much that even the IMU started to worry. Doesn’t “unity” mean “for all”, as in ?

Unity of mathematics

Frequent readers of this blog can probably guess where I stand on the “unity”. Even in my own area of Combinatorics, I couldn’t find much of it at all. I openly mocked “the feeling of unity of mathematics” argument in favor of some conjectures. I tried but could never understand Noga Alon’s claim that “mathematics should be considered as one unit” other than a political statement by a former PC Chair of the 2006 ICM.

So, about this “unity of mathematics”. Like, really? All of mathematics? Quick, tell me what exactly do the Stochastic PDEs, Algebraic Number Theory, Enumerative Combinatorics and Biostatistics have in common? Anything comes to mind? Anything at all? Ugh. Let’s make another experiment. Say, I tell you that only two of these four areas have Fields medals. Can you guess which ones? Oh, you can? Really, it was that easy?? Doesn’t this cut against all of this alleged “unity”?

Anyway, let’s be serious. Mathematics is not a unit. It’s not even a “patterned tapestry” of connected threads. It’s a human endeavor. It’s an assorted collection of scientific pursuits unconstrained by physical experiments. Some of them are deep, some shallow, some are connected to others, and some are motivated by real world applications. You check the MSC 2020 classification, and there is everything under the sun, 224 pages in total. It’s preposterous to look for and expect to find some unity there. There is none to be found.

Let me put it differently. Take poetry. Like math, it’s a artistic endeavor. Poems are written by the people and for the people. To enjoy. To recall when in need or when in a mood. Like math papers. Now, can anyone keep a straight face and say “unity of poetry“? Of course not. If anything, it’s the opposite. In poetry, having a distinctive voice is celebrated. Diverse styles are lauded. New forms are created. Strong emotions are evoked. That’s the point. Why would math be any different then?

What exactly unites us?

Mathematicians, I mean. Not much, I suppose, to the contrary of math politicians’ claims:

I like to think that increasing breadth in research will help the mathematical sciences to recognize our essential unity. (Margaret Wright, SIAM President, 1996)

Huh? Isn’t this like saying that space exploration will help foster cross-cultural understanding? Sounds reasonable until you actually think about what is being said…

Even the style of doing research is completely different. Some prove theorems, some make heavy computer computations, some make physical experiments, etc. At the end, some write papers and put them on the arXiv, some write long books full of words (e.g. mathematical historians), some submit to competitive conferences (e.g. in theoretical computer science), some upload software packages and experimental evidence to some data depositary. It’s all different. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal.

In truth, very little unites us. Some mathematicians work at large state universities, others at small private liberal arts colleges with a completely different approach to teaching. Some have a great commitment to math education, some spend every waking hour doing research, while others enjoy frequent fishing trips thanks to tenure. Some go into university administration or math politics, while others become journal editors.

In truth, only two things unites us — giant math societies like the AMS and giant conferences like ICMs and joint AMS/MAA/SIAM meetings. Let’s treat them separately, but before we go there, let’s take a detour just to see what an honest unrestricted public discourse sounds like:

What to do about the Olympics

The answer depends on who you ask, obviously. And opinions are abound. I personally don’t care other than the unfortunate fact that 2028 Olympics will be hosted on my campus. But we in math should learn how to be critical, so here is a range of voices that I googled. Do with them as you please.

Some are sort of in favor:

I still believe the Olympics contribute a net benefit to humanity. (Beth Daley, The Conversation, Feb. 2018)

Some are positive if a little ambivalent:

The Games aren’t dead. Not by a longshot. But it’s worth noting that the reason they are alive has strikingly little to do with games, athletes or medals. (L. Jon Wertheim, Time, June 2021)

Some like The New York Times are highly critical, calling it “absurdity”. Some are blunt:

More and more, the international spectacle has become synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes. (Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic, Aug. 2021)

yet unwilling to make the leap and call it quits. Others are less shy:

You can’t reform the Olympics. The Olympics are showing us what they are, and what they’ve always been. (Gia Lappe and Jonny Coleman, Jacobin, July 2021)

and

Boil down all the sanctimonious drivel about how edifying the games are, and you’re left with the unavoidable truth: The Olympics wreck lives. (Natalie Shure, The New Republic, July 2021)

What is the ICM

Well, it’s a giant collective effort. A very old tradition. Medals are distributed. Lots of talks. Speakers are told that it’s an honor to be chosen. Universities issue press releases. Yes, like this one. Rich countries set up and give away travel grants. Poor countries scramble to pay for participants. The host country gets dubious PR benefits. A week after it’s over everyone forgets it ever happened. Life goes on.

I went to just one ICM, in Rio in 2018. It was an honor to be invited. But the experience was decidedly mixed. The speakers were terrific mathematicians, all of them. Many were good speakers. A few were dreadful in both content and style. Some figured they are giving talks in their research seminar rather than to a general audience, so I left a couple of such talks in middle. Many talks in parallel sections were not even recorded. What a shame!

The crowds were stupefying. I saw a lot of faces. Some were friendly, of people I hadn’t seen in years, sometimes 20 years. Some were people I knew only by name. It was nice to say hello, to shake their hand. But there were thousands more. Literally. An ocean of people. I was drowning. This was the worst place for an introvert.

While there, I asked a lot of people how did they like the ICM. Some were electrified by the experience and had a decent enough time. Some looked like fish out of the water — when asked they just stared at me incomprehensively silently saying “What are you, an idiot?” Some told me they just went to the opening ceremony and left for the beach for the rest of the ICM. Assaf Naor said that he loved everything. I was so amused by that, I asked if I could quote him. “Yes,” he said, “you can quote me: I loved absolutely every bit of the ICM”. Here we go — not everyone is an introvert.

Whatever happened at the ICM

Unlike the Olympics, math people tend to be shy in their ICM criticism. In his somewhat unfortunately titled but otherwise useful historical book “Mathematicians of the World, Unite!” the author, Guillermo Curbera, largely stays exuberant about the subject. He does mention some critical stories, like this one:

Charlotte Angas Scott reported bluntly on the presentation of papers in the congress, which in her opinion were “usually shockingly bad” since “instead of speaking to the audience, [the lecturer] reads his paper to himself in a monotone that is sometimes hurried, sometimes hesitating, and frequently bored . . . so that he is often tedious and incomprehensible.” (Paris 1900 Chapter, p. 24)

Curbera does mention in passing that the were some controversies: Grothendieck refused to attend ICM Moscow in 1966 for political reasons, Margulis and Novikov were not allowed by the Soviet Union to leave the country to receive their Fields medals. Well, nobody’s perfect, right?

Most reports I found on the web are highly positive. Read, for example, Gil Kalai’s blog posts on the ICM 2018. Everything was great, right? Even Doron Zeilberger, not known for holding his tongue, is mostly positive (about the ICM Beijing in 2002). He does suggest that the invited speakers “should go to a ‘training camp‘” for some sort of teacher training re-education, apparently not seeing the irony, or simply under impression of all those great things in Beijing.

The only (highly controversial) criticism that I found was from Ulf Persson who starts with:

The congresses are by now considered to be monstrous affairs very different from the original intimate gatherings where group pictures could be taken.

He then continues to talk about various personal inconveniences, his misimpressions about the ICM setting, the culture, the city, etc., all in a somewhat insensitive and rather disparaging manner. Apparently, this criticism and misimpressions earned a major smackdown from Marcelo Viana, the ICM 2018 Organizing Committee Chair, who wrote that this was a “piece of bigotry” by somebody who is “poorly informed”. Fair enough. I agree with that and with the EMS President Volker Mehrmann who wrote in the same EMS newsletter that the article was “very counterproductive”. Sure. But an oversized 4 page reaction to an opinion article in a math newsletter from another continent seem indicative that the big boss hates criticism. Because we need all that “unity”, right?

Anyway, don’t hold your breath to see anything critical about the ICM St. Petersburg later this year. Clearly, everything is going to be just fantastic, nothing controversial about it. Right…

What to do about the ICM

Stop having them in the current form. It’s the 21st century, and we are starting the third year of the pandemic. All talks can be moved online so that everyone can watch them either as they happen, or later on YouTube. Let me note that I’ve sat in the bleachers of these makeshift 1000+ people convention center auditoriums where the LaTeX formulas are barely visible. This is what the view is like:

Note that the ICM is not like a sports event — there is literally nothing at stake. Also, there are usually no questions afterwards anyway. You are all better off watching the talks later on your laptop, perhaps even on a x1.5 speed. To get the idea, imagine watching this talk in a huge room full of people…. Even better, we can also spread out these online lectures across the time zones so that people from different countries can participate. Something like this World Relay in Combinatorics.

Really, all that CO2 burned to get humans halfway across the world to seat in a crowded space is not doing anyone any good. If the Nobel Prizes can be awarded remotely, so can the Fields medals. Tourism value aside, the amount of meaningful person-to-person interaction is so minimal in a large crowd, I am struggling to find a single good reason at all to have these extravaganzas in-person.

What to do about the AMS

I am not a member of any math societies so it’s not my place to tell them what to do. As a frequent contributor to AMS journals and a former editor of one of them, I did call on the AMS to separate its society business form the publishing, but given that their business model hinges on the books and journals they sell, this is unlikely. Still, let me make some quick observations which might be helpful.

The AMS is clearly getting less and less popular. I couldn’t find the exact membership numbers, but their “dues and outreach” earnings have been flat for a while. Things are clearly not going in the right direction, so much that the current AMS President Ruth Charney sent out a survey earlier this week asking people like me why do we not want to join.

People seem to realize that they have many different views on all thing math related and are seeking associations which are a better fit. One notable example is the Just Mathematics Collective which has several notable boycott initiatives. Another is the Association for Mathematical Research formed following various controversies. Note that there is a great deal of disagreements between these two, see e.g. here, there and there.

I feel these are very good developments. It’s healthy to express disagreements on issues you consider important. And while I disagree with other things in the article below, I do agree with this basic premise:

Totalitarian countries have unity. Democratic republics have disagreement. (Kevin Williamson, Against Unity, National Review, Jan. 2021)

So everyone just chill. Enjoy diverse views and opinions. Disagree with the others. And think twice before you call for “unity” of anything, or praise the ephemeral “unity of mathematics”. There is none.

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.