This Week in Mathematics

For May 24th, 2020

New Stories

Since last newsletter, we’ve published 13 new stories from nine different authors. There should be a little something for everyone here, including an overview of how multi-rotors (such as quadcopter drones) fly, an ancient calculation of the size of the moon, a discussion of Platonism, a simple proof of Fermat’s Little Theorem, a narration of how the famous Einstein-Szilárd letter came to be, and much much more:

In the news

Erica Klarreich of Quanta Magazine this week published an essay narrating how mathematician Lisa Piccirillo recently solved a decades-old problem in knot theory, namely whether or not the Conway knot is a “smoothly slice” knot, i.e. whether or not it can be made by slicing a knotted, smooth sphere. It is not, by the way:

Klarreich narrates how Piccirillo encountered the problem in the summer of 2018 and solved it within a week, using techniques she had developed as a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin. A few days later, she met with Professor Cameron Gordon, whose response upon hearing her solution was:

“I said, ‘What?? That’s going to the Annals right now!’” Gordon said, referring to Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s top journals.

“He started yelling, ‘Why aren’t you more excited?’” said Piccirillo, now a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University. “He sort of freaked out.”

“I don’t think she’d recognized what an old and famous problem this was,” Gordon said.

Read the full story about the problem and its recent solution in Quanta Magazine here.

Last week

A few months ago, the creator of Mathematica, Stephen Wolfram, somewhat out of the blue announced that he had found a “path to a fundamental theory of physics”, writing

“It’s unexpected, surprising — and for me incredibly exciting. To be fair, at some level I’ve been working towards this for nearly 50 years. But it’s just in the last few months that it’s finally come together. And it’s much more wonderful, and beautiful, than I’d ever imagined.”

The scientific community appeared largely unimpressed, although the announcement earned its share of attention, with write-ups in WIRED, AP Press, Popular Mechanics and others. Author and theoretical physicist Sebine Hossenfelder expressed her frustration over the attention Wolfram’s claims received on Twitter, writing

“I spent two days reading the stuff, trying to make sense of it. I eventually wrote some questions to the Wolfram folks and have since waited for a reply. Why do you think I have to waste my time on some guys’ self-promotion?”

Cut to about two weeks ago, I was leafing through the book “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard Feynman” when I found letters to and from Wolfram from Feynman. Written in October 1984, the letters discuss whether or not Wolfram is being unfairly treated by the scientific community, and whether or not he should set out to start his own research institute. Feynman appears to have found the latter to be a bad idea, writing:

“You say you want to create your own environment--but you will not be doing that: you will create (perhaps!) an environment that you might like to work in--but you will not be working in this environment--you will be administrating it--and the administration environment is not what you seek--is it? You won't enjoy administrating people because you won't succeed in it.

You don't understand "ordinary people". To you they are "stupid fools"--so you will not tolerate them or treat their foibles with tolerance or patience--but will drive yourself wild (or they will drive you wild) trying to deal with them in an effective way.”

I found this rather ironic considering recent events, and so went digging for more. I wrote up what I found in this essay, published on May 11th.

As always, feel free to get in touch for any questions, comments and/or requests for stories. I hope everyone has a fantastic week!

Best,

Jørgen

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