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Pure Math, Pure Joy 315

Posted by michael
from the msri-loves-company dept.
e271828 writes "The New York Times is carrying a nice little piece entitled Pure Math, Pure Joy about the beauty and applicability of pure math as carried out at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. There is an accompanying slideshow of pictures of mathematicians in action; I particularly loved the picture titled Waging Mental Battle with a Proof."
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Pure Math, Pure Joy

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  • by jonman_d (465049) <nemilar@oFORTRAN ... t minus language> on Sunday June 29, 2003 @02:44PM (#6325918) Homepage Journal
    Pure Math, Pure Joy
    By DENNIS OVERBYE

    A mathematician, the Hungarian lover of numbers Paul Erdos once said, is a device for converting coffee into theorems. Here, then, are a few glimpses into the Truth Factory. The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, sustained mostly by the National Science Foundation, sits on a hill above the University of California at Berkeley, where it attracts people from around the world for stints of up to a year to lose themselves in subjects like algebraic geometry or special holonomy.

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    Consider it an embassy of another world, a Platonic realm of clarity and beauty, of forms and relations, where the answers to questions not yet asked already exist.

    Higher mathematics -- as opposed to what we do every April 15 -- has been relevant ever since Archimedes leaped out of his bath shouting "Eureka!" more than 2,000 years ago. Nobody knows when some abstruse bit of math will float off a blackboard at a place like this and become -- often decades later -- a key tool in cryptography, biology, physics or economics (as in "A Beautiful Mind").

    Take string theory, a mathematically labyrinthine effort to construct a so-called theory of everything out of the notion that the fundamental elements of nature are tiny strings flopping and wriggling in an 11-dimensional space-time. It has been called a piece of 21st-century physics that fell by accident into the 20th century.

    In their quest to negotiate this labyrinth, string theorists have made a hot topic of something called Riemann surfaces, invented by the German mathematician Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann 150 years ago, but they have also helped blaze new fields of mathematics.

    "Since our theories are so far ahead of experimental capabilities, we are forced to use mathematics as our eyes," Dr. Brian Greene, a Columbia University string theorist, said recently. "That's why we follow it where it takes us even if we can't see where we're going."

    So in some ways the men and women seen here scrutinizing marks on their blackboards collectively represent a kind of particle accelerator of the mind.

    But the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in explaining the world, as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is a minor motivation at best for those immersed in the field. Most mathematicians say they are in it for the math itself, for the delirious quest for patterns, the thrill of the detective chase and the lure of beautiful answers.

    "Math is sense," said Dr. Robert Osserman, a Stanford professor and deputy director of the institute, quoting from the play "Copenhagen." "That's what sense is."
  • by CausticWindow (632215) on Sunday June 29, 2003 @03:28PM (#6326122)

    I work in the maths department of a University, and yes.. it's very much like this. We sit around all day in small groups, staring at blackboards, "battling with proofs". Just like in that wonderful movie with the violent australian, "A Beautiful Mind".

    No.

  • misery loves company (Score:3, Informative)

    by chloroquine (642737) on Sunday June 29, 2003 @04:29PM (#6326405) Journal
    So, I just wanted to poke my head in here and note that MSRI (where the pictures are taken) is pronounced "misery" by the maths community.

    My (insert close relative here) does minimal surfaces and hangs out with some of these guys. They look far too neatly dressed in the pictures. Anyway, for a good time, you might want to take a look at some of the galleries of images that these crazy minimal surfaces guys do. I remember about ten years ago, one of my (insert close relative)'s colleagues sold a few images to the Grateful Dead for their concerts.

    http://www.msri.org/publications/sgp/jim/images/ [msri.org]
    http://www.gang.umass.edu/ [umass.edu]
    There is another site out at Minnesota but I'm too lazy to look for it today.

  • by elizalovesmike (626844) on Sunday June 29, 2003 @04:34PM (#6326429)
    "the beauty of this is that it is absolutely useless to anybody"

    You're screwin' up the causal relationships again.

    Pure math isn't a thing of beauty because discoveries yielded by it may have no *immediate* practicable value; nor is it a thing of beauty because it may be sourced in something other than a desire to solve an immediate problem.

    It's a thing of beauty because it has produced fascinating finds with respect to the relationships between various prime numbers and relatively prime numbers (Euler's Totient function). Modular exponentiation is fascinating--how this works with primes (i.e. 3^1 mod 7 = 3; 3^2 mod 7 = 2; 3^3 mod 7 = 6; 3^4 mod 7 = 4; 3^5 mod 7 = 5; 3^6 mod 7 = 1; 3^7 mod 7 = 3 and it all REPEATs) -- so is fast exponentiation, exponential inverses, modular inverses, Fermat's little theory etc.

    That some of these finds combine to yield one-way (trapdoor) functions that can take advantage of the inability (for now!) to factor large numbers and provide a secure pub key system is a bonus of monumental importance. And one that was only just recently (past 30 years or so) realized.

    You can never know if a thing will be useful or not without understanding the essence of that thing; and there again "useful" is clearly a time-limited function... As one cannot perfectly predict future needs and future landscapes, one cannot perfectly determine at any one point of time whether current work in number theory will be with or without practical value. Though what's so wrong with discovery for discovery's sake! Isn't that part of the reason we are here?
  • by paugq (443696) <`pgquiles' `at' `elpauer.org'> on Sunday June 29, 2003 @05:50PM (#6326774) Homepage

    You certainly don't know what you are talking about. Some tests are public and some even free.

    For instance, here [mensa.es] (Mensa Spain) [mensa.es] you have a test publicly available.

    And there are some books also publicly available sold as Mensa preparatory test books.

    And that's not all, they sent me home a test (which I never filled), with solutions.

    So, who is the liar?

  • Funny... (Score:3, Informative)

    by biostatman (105993) on Sunday June 29, 2003 @08:14PM (#6327490)
    The title of the article is "Pure Math, Pure Joy" and it's about MSRI. While it is a phenomenal place, it is no picnic for young mathematicians for sure and is often referred to as "misery", as in "yeah, I spent a year in misery (MSRI)".

  • Re:Funny... (Score:2, Informative)

    by D. J. Bernstein (313967) on Monday June 30, 2003 @02:41AM (#6328923)
    Speaking as a mathematician who was around MSRI 1991-1995, 2000, and 2002-2003: We say ``misery'' because that's the easiest way to pronounce MSRI, not to express any negative sentiments towards the place. When Bill Thurston took over as director in the early 1990s, he tried to get everyone to switch to a French-style ``emissary,'' but that word just isn't as easy to say as ``misery.''

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