## ICM2014 — Bhargava laudatio

August 15, 2014

I ended up writing more than I expected to about Avila. I’ll try not to fall into the same trap with Bhargava, not because there isn’t lots to write about him, but simply because if I keep writing at this length then by the time I get on to some of the talks I’ve been to subsequently I’ll have forgotten about them.

Dick Gross also gave an excellent talk. He began with some of the basic theory of binary quadratic forms over the integers, that is, expressions of the form $ax^2+bxy+cy^2$. One assumes that they are primitive (meaning that $a$, $b$ and $c$ don’t have some common factor). The discriminant of a binary quadratic form is the quantity $b^2-4ac$. The group SL$_2(\mathbb{Z})$ then acts on these by a change of basis. For example, if we take the matrix $\begin{pmatrix}2&1\\5&3\end{pmatrix}$, we’ll replace $(x,y)$ by $(2x+y, 5x+3y)$ and end up with the form $a(2x+y)^2+b(2x+y)(5x+3y)+c(5x+3y)^2$, which can be rearranged to
$(4a+10b+25c)x^2+(4a+11b+30c)xy+(a+3b+9c)y^2$
(modulo any mistakes I may have made). Because the matrix is invertible over the integers, the new form can be transformed back to the old one by another change of basis, and hence takes the same set of values. Two such forms are called equivalent.

## ICM2014 — Avila laudatio

August 14, 2014

As I said in my previous post, I don’t think I’m going to try all that hard to explain the work of the prizewinners, since it has been very well explained in other places (except that much more attention has gone to the Fields medallists than to the Nevanlinna prize winner — maybe I’ll try to redress the balance a little bit there). Instead, I’d just like to mention a few things that I found interesting or amusing during the laudationes.

The first one was an excellent talk by Etienne Ghys on the work of Artur Avila. (The only other talk I’ve heard by Ghys was his plenary lecture at the ICM in Madrid in 2006, which was also excellent.) It began particularly well, with a brief sketch of the important stages in the history of dynamics. These were as follows.

1. Associated with Newton is the idea that you are given a differential equation, and you try to find solutions. This has of course had a number of amazing successes.

2. However, after a while it became clear that the differential equations for which one could hope to find a solution were not typical. The next stage, initiated by Poincaré, was to aim for something less. One could summarize it by saying that now, given a differential equation, one tries merely to say something interesting about its solutions.

3. In the 1960s, Smale and Thom went a stage further, trying to take on board the realization that often physicists don’t actually know the equation that models the phenomenon they are looking at. As Ghys put it, the endeavour now can be summed up as follows: you are not given a differential equation and you want to say something interesting about its solutions.
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## ICM2014 — opening ceremony

August 13, 2014

I’d forgotten just how full the first day of an ICM is. First, you need to turn up early for the opening ceremony, so you end up sitting around for an hour and half or so before it even starts. Then there’s the ceremony itself, which lasts a couple of hours. Then in the afternoon you have talks about the four Fields Medallists and the Nevanlinna Prize winner, with virtually no breaks. Then after a massive ten minutes, the Nevanlinna Prize winner talks about his (in this case) own work, about which you have just heard, but in a bit more detail. That took us to 5:45pm. And just to round things off, Jim Simons is giving a public lecture at 8pm, which I suppose I could skip but I think I’m not going to. (The result is that most of this post will be written after it, but right at this very moment it is not yet 8pm.) Read the rest of this entry »

## ICM2014 — first impressions

August 12, 2014

I’m writing this at 6:22am in my hotel room in Seoul, which is in a hotel that is right next to the conference centre, to the point where you don’t have to go out of doors to get from one to the other. I’ve just had a good night’s sleep, even though in French time (which is what I was used to until the day before yesterday — if that concept still means anything) my entire night has been during the day time, and now is about the time I’d be thinking of going to bed. I feel a bit strange, and I may have trouble staying awake during an opening ceremony that lasts several hours and then a pretty full programme of talks later in the day. But during the latter I’ll be taking notes in order to be able to blog about them in reasonable detail, so at least I’ll have something to keep my brain from relaxing too much.
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## ICM2014 — introductory post

August 11, 2014

Four years ago I blogged from the ICM in Hyderabad. The posts are amongst the most popular I have written — my statistics show that some of them are still being read quite regularly even now. Right now I’m sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport waiting to board a plane to Seoul, where I will be attending this year’s ICM, or rather, as I did last time, attending the first half of it. I’m not sure I’ll have the time or energy to write quite as much about ICM2014 as I did about ICM2010, but I’ll do what I can. In particular, I’ll try to convey exactly what I manage to understand from some of the main talks — especially the talks about the work of the new Fields Medallists. Given all the rumours about the likelihood of one of them being female, I am particularly glad to be going to the opening ceremony to witness (I hope) an important moment in mathematical history.

Just as the last ICM was the first (and still only) time I had been to India, this one will be my first visit to Korea. I’m looking forward to that aspect too, though my hotel is right next to where the congress is taking place and the programme looks pretty packed, so I’m not sure I’ll see much of the country. Talking of the packedness of the programme, I can already see that there are going to be some agonising decisions. For example, Tom Sanders is giving an invited lecture at the same time as Ryan Williams, two speakers I very much want to listen to. I suppose I’ll just have to read the proceedings article of the one I don’t go to. Equally unfortunate is that Ben Green’s plenary lecture is not until next week, when I’ll have gone. But I hope that I’ll still be able to get some kind of feel for where mathematics is now, what people outside my area consider important, and so on, and that I’ll be able to convey some of that in the next few posts.

I’d better stop this now, since I’ll soon be getting on to an Airbus 380 — a monstrously large double-decker plane. One of my children is something of a transport enthusiast and told me in advance that this would be the case (he had looked it up on the internet). I had hoped to end up on the top floor, but that turns out to be for business class only. The flight is about 11 hours: it leaves at 9pm French time and arrives at around 2:30pm Korean time. The challenge will be not to be utterly exhausted by the time of the opening ceremony on Wednesday morning. My memory of Hyderabad is that by the end of the four days I was so tired that I was almost getting anxious about my health. I plan to look after myself a bit better this time, but it may be difficult.

## Mini-monomath

July 19, 2014

The title of this post is a nod to Terry Tao’s four mini-polymath discussions, in which IMO questions were solved collaboratively online. As the beginning of what I hope will be a long exercise in gathering data about how humans solve these kinds of problems, I decided to have a go at one of this year’s IMO problems, with the idea of writing down my thoughts as I went along. Because I was doing that (and doing it directly into a LaTeX file rather than using paper and pen), I took quite a long time to solve the problem: it was the first question, and therefore intended to be one of the easier ones, so in a competition one would hope to solve it quickly and move on to the more challenging questions 2 and 3 (particularly 3). You get an average of an hour and a half per question, and I think I took at least that, though I didn’t actually time myself.

What I wrote gives some kind of illustration of the twists and turns, many of them fruitless, that people typically take when solving a problem. If I were to draw a moral from it, it would be this: when trying to solve a problem, it is a mistake to expect to take a direct route to the solution. Instead, one formulates subquestions and gradually builds up a useful bank of observations until the direct route becomes clear. Given that we’ve just had the football world cup, I’ll draw an analogy that I find not too bad (though not perfect either): a team plays better if it patiently builds up to an attack on goal than if it hoofs the ball up the pitch or takes shots from a distance. Germany gave an extraordinary illustration of this in their 7-1 defeat of Brazil.

I imagine that the rest of this post will be much more interesting if you yourself solve the problem before reading what I did. I in turn would be interested in hearing about other people’s experiences with the problem: were they similar to mine, or quite different? I would very much like to get a feel for how varied people’s experiences are. If you’re a competitor who solved the problem, feel free to join the discussion!

If I find myself with some spare time, I might have a go at doing the same with some of the other questions.

What follows is exactly what I wrote (or rather typed), with no editing at all, apart from changing the LaTeX so that it compiles in WordPress and adding two comments that are clearly marked in red.

Problem Let $a_0 be an infinite sequence of positive integers. Prove that there exists a unique integer $n\geq 1$ such that

$a_n <\frac{a_0+a_1+\dots+a_n}n\leq a_{n+1}\ .$
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## ECM2016 — your chance to influence the programme

June 29, 2014

UPDATE: I HAVE NOW GONE BACK TO MODERATING COMMENTS ONLY IF THEY ARE FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT HAD A COMMENT ACCEPTED IN THE PAST. SO IF YOU HAVE A SUGGESTION TO MAKE FOR AN ECM2016 SPEAKER, PLEASE EMAIL A MEMBER OF THE COMMITTEE DIRECTLY RATHER THAN COMMENTING HERE.

Just before I start this post, let me say that I do still intend to write a couple of follow-up posts to my previous one about journal prices. But I’ve been busy with a number of other things, so it may still take a little while.

This post is about the next European Congress of Mathematics, which takes place in Berlin in just over two years’ time. I have agreed to chair the scientific committee, which is responsible for choosing approximately 10 plenary speakers and approximately 30 invited lecturers, the latter to speak in four or five parallel sessions.

The ECM is less secretive than the ICM when it comes to drawing up its scientific programme. In particular, the names of the committee members were made public some time ago, and you can read them here.

I am all in favour of as much openness as possible, so I am very pleased that this is the way that the European Mathematical Society operates. But what is the maximum reasonable level of openness in this case? Clearly, public discussion of the merits of different candidates is completely out of order, but I think anything else goes. In particular, and this is the main point of the post, I would very much welcome suggestions for potential speakers. If you know of a mathematician who is European (and for these purposes Europe includes certain not obviously European countries such as Russia and Israel), has done exciting work (ideally recently), and will not already be speaking about that work at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, then we would like to hear about it. Our main aim is that the congress should be rewarding for its participants, so we will take some account of people’s ability to give a good talk. This applies in particular to plenary speakers.
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## Elsevier journals — some facts

April 24, 2014

Update: figures now in from Imperial. See below.

Further update: figures in from Nottingham too.

Further update: figures now in from Oxford.

Final update: figures in from LSE.

A little over two years ago, the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier journals began. Initially, it seemed to be highly successful, with the number of signatories rapidly reaching 10,000 and including some very high-profile researchers, and Elsevier making a number of concessions, such as dropping support for the Research Works Act and making papers over four years old from several mathematics journals freely available online. It has also contributed to an increased awareness of the issues related to high journal prices and the locking up of articles behind paywalls.

However, it is possible to take a more pessimistic view. There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have done in the past), which would have forced Elsevier to sit up and take more serious notice. Instead, they waited for things to settle down, and now, two years later, the main problems, bundling and exorbitant prices, continue unabated: in 2013, Elsevier’s profit margin was up to 39%. (The profit is a little over £800 million on a little over £2 billion.) As for the boycott, the number of signatories appears to have reached a plateau of about 14,500.
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## A few analysis resources

March 12, 2014

This will be my final post associated with the Analysis I course, for which the last lecture was yesterday. It’s possible that I’ll write further relevant posts in the nearish future, but it’s also possible that I won’t. This one is a short one to draw attention to other material that can be found on the web that may help you to learn the course material. It will be an incomplete list: further suggestions would be welcome in the comments below.

A good way to test your basic knowledge of (some of) the course would be to do a short multiple-choice quiz devised by Vicky Neale. If you don’t get the right answer first time for every question, then it will give you an idea of the areas of the course that need attention.

Terence Tao has also created a number of multiple-choice quizzes, some of which are relevant to the course. They can be found on this page. The quiz on continuity expects you to know the definitions of adherent points and limit points, which I did not discuss in lectures.
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## How do the power-series definitions of sin and cos relate to their geometrical interpretations?

March 2, 2014

I hope that most of you have either asked yourselves this question explicitly, or at least felt a vague sense of unease about how the definitions I gave in lectures, namely

$\displaystyle \cos x = 1 - \frac{x^2}{2!}+\frac{x^4}{4!}-\dots$

and

$\displaystyle \sin x = x - \frac{x^3}{3!}+\frac{x^5}{5!}-\dots,$

relate to things like the opposite, adjacent and hypotenuse. Using the power-series definitions, we proved several facts about trigonometric functions, such as the addition formulae, their derivatives, and the fact that they are periodic. But we didn’t quite get to the stage of proving that if $x^2+y^2=1$ and $\theta$ is the angle that the line from $(0,0)$ to $(x,y)$ makes with the line from $(0,0)$ to $(1,0)$, then $x=\cos\theta$ and $y=\sin\theta$. So how does one establish that? How does one even define the angle? In this post, I will give one possible answer to these questions.
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