Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Two infinities that are surprisingly equal

September 19, 2017

It has been in the news recently — or rather, the small corner of the news that is of particular interest to mathematicians — that Maryanthe Malliaris and Saharon Shelah recently had an unexpected breakthrough when they stumbled on a proof that two infinities were equal that had been conjectured, and widely believed, to be distinct. Or rather, since both were strictly between the cardinality of the natural numbers and the cardinality of the reals, they were widely believed to be distinct in some models of set theory where the continuum hypothesis fails.

A couple of days ago, John Baez was sufficiently irritated by a Quanta article on this development that he wrote a post on Google Plus in which he did a much better job of explaining what was going on. As a result of reading that, and following and participating in the ensuing discussion, I have got interested in the problem. In particular, as a complete non-expert, I am struck that a problem that looks purely combinatorial (though infinitary) should, according to Quanta, have a solution that involves highly non-trivial arguments in proof theory and model theory. It makes me wonder, again as a complete non-expert so probably very naively, whether there is a simpler purely combinatorial argument that the set theorists missed because they believed too strongly that the two infinities were different.

I certainly haven’t found such an argument, but I thought it might be worth at least setting out the problem, in case it appeals to anyone, and giving a few preliminary thoughts about it. I’m not expecting much from this, but if there’s a small chance that it leads to a fruitful mathematical discussion, then it’s worth doing. As I said above, I am indebted to John Baez and to several commenters on his post for being able to write much of what I write in this post, as can easily be checked if you read that discussion as well.


Another journal flips

July 27, 2017

There is widespread (even if not universal) agreement that something is deeply wrong with the current system of academic publishing. The basic point, which has been made innumerable times by innumerable people, is that the really hard parts — the writing of papers, and the peer review and selection of the ones to publish — are done voluntarily by academics, and modern technology makes things like typesetting and dissemination extremely cheap. And yet publishers are making more money than ever before. They do this by insisting that we give them ownership of the content we produce (though many journals will publish papers even if you strike out the part of the contract that hands them this ownership — these days I never agree to give copyright to a publisher, and I urge you not to either), and by bundling their journals together so that libraries are forced into an all-or-nothing decision. (As another aside, I also urge libraries to look closely at what is happening in Germany, where they have gone for the “nothing” option with Elsevier and the world has not come to an end.)

What can be done about this? There are many actions, none of which are likely to be sufficient to bring about major change on their own, but which in combination will help to get us to a tipping point. In no particular order, here are some of them.

  1. Create new journals that operate much more cheaply and wait for them to become established.
  2. Persuade libraries not to agree to Big Deals with the big publishers.
  3. Refuse to publish with, write for, or edit for, the big publishers.
  4. Make sure all your work is freely available online.
  5. Encourage journals that are supporting the big publishers to leave those publishers and set up in a cheaper and fairer way.

Not all of these are easy things to do, but I’m delighted to report that a small group I belong to, set up by Mark Wilson, has, after approaching a large number of maths journals, found one that was ready to “flip”: the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics has just announced that it will be leaving Springer. Or if you want to be more pedantic about it, a new journal will be starting, called Algebraic Combinatorics and published by The Mersenne Centre for Open Scientific Publishing, and almost all the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics will resign from that journal and become editors of the new one, which will adhere to Fair Open Access Principles.

If you want to see change, then you should from now on regard Algebraic Combinatorics as the true continuation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, and the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics as a zombie journal that happens to have a name that coincides with a former real journal. And of course, that means that if you are an algebraic combinatorialist with a paper that would have been suitable for the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, you should understand that the reputation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics is being transferred, along with the editorial board, to Algebraic Combinatorics, and you should therefore submit it to Algebraic Combinatorics. This has worked with previous flips: the zombie journal rarely thrives afterwards and in some notable cases has ceased to publish after a couple of years or so.

Timothy Chow starts Polymath12

February 24, 2017

This is a quick post to draw attention to the fact that a new and very interesting looking polymath project has just started, led by Timothy Chow. He is running it over at the Polymath blog.

The problem it will tackle is Rota’s basis conjecture, which is the following statement.

Conjecture. For each i let B_i=\{e_{i1},\dots,e_{in}\} be a basis of an n-dimensional vector space V. Then there are n disjoint bases of V, each containing one element from each B_i.

Equivalently, if you have an n\times n matrix where each row is a basis, then you can permute the entries of the rows so that each column is also a basis.

This is one of those annoying problems that comes into the how-can-that-not-be-known category. Timothy Chow has a lot of interesting thoughts to get the project going, as well as explanations of why he thinks the time might be ripe for a solution.

Call for nominations for the 2018 Chern Medal

November 14, 2016

This is a guest post by Caroline Series.

The Chern Medal is a relatively new prize, awarded once every four years jointly by the IMU and the Chern Medal Foundation (CMF) to an individual whose accomplishments warrant the highest level of recognition for outstanding achievements in the field of mathematics. Funded by the CMF, the Medalist receives a cash prize of US$ 250,000. In addition, each Medalist may nominate one or more organizations to receive funding totalling US$ 250,000, for the support of research, education, or other outreach programs in the field of mathematics.

Professor Chern devoted his life to mathematics, both in active research and education, and in nurturing the field whenever the opportunity arose. He obtained fundamental results in all the major aspects of modern geometry and founded the area of global differential geometry. Chern exhibited keen aesthetic tastes in his selection of problems, and the breadth of his work deepened the connections of geometry with different areas of mathematics. He was also generous during his lifetime in his personal support of the field.

Nominations should be sent to the Prize Committee Chair: Caroline Series, email: chair(at) by 31st December 2016. Further details and nomination guidelines for this and the other IMU prizes can be found here.

Quick update on Leicester

November 2, 2016

I’m very happy to report that it seems that some kind of deal seems to have been reached, the details of which I don’t yet know anything about, which means that n of the mathematics faculty at Leicester will not after all have to reapply for their positions with only n-6 of those positions on offer. If I find out more, I will add to this post, and if I learn of some kind of announcement online I will provide a link to it. But in the meantime, many thanks to the thousands of people from around the world who signed the petition — the strength of feeling was impressive and I think it may have made a difference.

Discrete Analysis one year on

October 5, 2016

This is cross posted from the blog on the Discrete Analysis web page.

Approximately a year on from the announcement of Discrete Analysis, it seems a good moment to take stock and give a quick progress report, so here it is.

At the time of writing (5th October 2016) we have 17 articles published and are on target to reach 20 by the end of the year. (Another is accepted and waiting for the authors to produce a final version.) We are very happy with the standard of the articles. The journal has an ISSN, each article has a DOI, and articles are listed on MathSciNet. We are not yet listed on Web of Science, so we do not have an impact factor, but we will soon start the process of applying for one.

We are informed by Scholastica that between June 6th and September 27th 2016 the journal had 18,980 pageviews. (In the not too distant future we will have the analytics available to us whenever we want to look at them.) The number of views of the page for a typical article is in the low hundreds, but that probably underestimates the number of times people read the editorial introduction for a given article, since that can be done from the main journal pages. So getting published in Discrete Analysis appears to be a good way to attract attention to your article — we hope more than if you post it on the arXiv and wait for it to appear a long time later in a journal of a more conventional type.

We have had 74 submissions so far, of which 14 are still in process. Our acceptance rate is 37%, but some submissions are not serious mathematics, and if these are discounted then the rate is probably somewhere around 50%. I think the 74 includes revised versions of previously submitted articles, so the true figure is a little lower. Our average time to reject a non-serious submission is 7 days, our average to reject a more serious submission is 47 days, and our average time to accept is 121 days. There is considerable variance in these figures, so they should be interpreted cautiously.

There has been one change of policy since the launch of the journal. László Babai, founder of the online journal Theory of Computing, which, like Discrete Analysis, is free to read and has no publication charges, very generously offered to provide for us a suitable adaptation of their style file. As a result, our articles will from now on have a uniform appearance and, more importantly, will appear with their metadata: after a while it seemed a little strange that the official version of one of our articles would not say anywhere that it was published by Discrete Analysis, but now it tells you that, and the number of the article, the date of publication, the DOI, and so on. So far, our two most recent articles have been formatted — you can see them here and here — and in due course we will reformat all the earlier ones.

If you have an article that you think might suit the journal (and now that we have several articles on our website it should be easier to judge this), we would be very pleased to receive it: 20 articles in our first year is a good start, but we hope that in due course the journal will be perceived as established and the submission rate of good articles will increase. (For comparison, Combinatorica published 31 articles in 2015, and Combinatorics, Probability and Computing publishes around 55 articles a year, to judge from a small sample of issues.)

In case you haven’t heard what’s going on in Leicester …

September 15, 2016

Strangely, this is my second post about Leicester in just a few months, but it’s about something a lot more depressing than the football team’s fairytale winning of the Premier League (but let me quickly offer my congratulations to them for winning their first Champions League match — I won’t offer advice about whether they are worth betting on to win that competition too). News has just filtered through to me that the mathematics department is facing compulsory redundancies.

The structure of the story is wearily familiar after what happened with USS pensions. The authorities declare that there is a financial crisis, and that painful changes are necessary. They offer a consultation. In the consultation their arguments appear to be thoroughly refuted. The refutation is then ignored and the changes go ahead.

Here is a brief summary of the painful changes that are proposed for the Leicester mathematics department. The department has 21 permanent research-active staff. Six of those are to be made redundant. There are also two members of staff who concentrate on teaching. Their number will be increased to three. How will the six be chosen? Basically, almost everyone will be sacked and then invited to reapply for their jobs in a competitive process, and the plan is to get rid of “the lowest performers” at each level of seniority. Those lowest performers will be considered for “redeployment” — which means that the university will make efforts to find them a job of a broadly comparable nature, but doesn’t guarantee to succeed. It’s not clear to me what would count as broadly comparable to doing pure mathematical research.

How is performance defined? It’s based on things like research grants, research outputs, teaching feedback, good citizenship, and “the ongoing and potential for continued career development and trajectory”, whatever that means. In other words, on the typical flawed metrics so beloved of university administrators, together with some subjective opinions that will presumably have to come from the department itself — good luck with offering those without creating enemies for life.

Oh, and another detail is that they want to reduce the number of straight maths courses and promote actuarial science and service teaching in other departments.

There is a consultation period that started in late August and ends on the 30th of September. So the lucky members of the Leicester mathematics faculty have had a whole month to marshall their to-be-ignored arguments against the changes.

It’s important to note that mathematics is not the only department that is facing cuts. But it’s equally important to note that it is being singled out: the university is aiming for cuts of 4.5% on average, and mathematics is being asked to make a cut of more like 20%. One reason for this seems to be that the department didn’t score all that highly in the last REF. It’s a sorry state of affairs for a university that used to boast Sir Michael Atiyah as its chancellor.

I don’t know what can be done to stop this, but at the very least there is a petition you can sign. It would be good to see a lot of signatures, so that Leicester can see how damaging a move like this will be to its reputation.

Should I have bet on Leicester City?

May 3, 2016

If you’re not British, or you live under a stone somewhere, then you may not have heard about one of the most extraordinary sporting stories ever. Leicester City, a football (in the British sense) team that last year only just escaped relegation from the top division, has just won the league. At the start of the season you could have bet on this happening at odds of 5000-1. Just 12 people availed themselves of this opportunity.

Ten pounds bet then would have net me 50000 pounds now, so a natural question arises: should I be kicking myself (the appropriate reaction given the sport) for not placing such a bet? In one sense the answer is obviously yes, as I’d have made a lot of money if I had. But I’m not in the habit of placing bets, and had no idea that these odds were being offered anyway, so I’m not too cut up about it.

Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to think about the question hypothetically: if I had been the betting type and had known about these odds, should I have gone for them? Or would regretting not doing so be as silly as regretting not choosing and betting on the particular set of numbers that just happened to win the national lottery last week?

Discrete Analysis launched

March 1, 2016

As you may remember from an earlier post on this blog, Discrete Analysis is a new mathematics journal that runs just like any other journal except in one respect: the articles we publish live on the arXiv. This is supposed to highlight the fact that in the internet age, and in particular in an age when it is becoming routine for mathematicians to deposit their articles on the arXiv before they submit them to journals, the only important function left for journals is organizing peer review. Since this is done through the voluntary work of academics, it should in principle be possible to run a journal for almost nothing. The legacy publishers (as they are sometimes called) frequently call people naive for suggesting this, so it is important to have actual examples to prove it, and Discrete Analysis is set up to be one such example. Its website goes live today.

Interesting times in academic publishing

November 10, 2015

In this post I want briefly to mention four current goings on in the world of academic publishing.

First, I’ll just briefly say that things are going well with the new journal Discrete Analysis, and I think we’re on course to launch, as planned, early next year with a few very good accepted papers — we certainly have a number of papers in the pipeline that look promising to me. Of course, we’d love to have more.

Secondly, a very interesting initiative has recently been started by Martin Eve, called the Open Library of Humanities. The rough idea is that they provide a platform for humanities journals that are free to read online and free for authors (or, as some people like to say, are Diamond OA journals). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this initiative is that it is funded by a consortium of libraries. Librarians are the people who feel the pain of ridiculous subscription prices, so they have great goodwill towards people who are trying to build new and cheaper publication models. I think there is no reason that the sciences couldn’t do something similar — in fact, it should be even easier to find money.