School of Mathematics

Yitang Zhang’s Spectacular Mathematical Journey

Curiosity and Persistence by Unknown Mathematician Leads to Fundamental Breakthrough 

Member Yitang Zhang looking out at the Institute pond    (Photo: Amy Ramsey)
Member Yitang Zhang looking out at the Institute pond (Photo: Amy Ramsey)

A year ago April, the editors of the Annals of Mathematics, a journal published by the Institute and Princeton University, received an email with a submission by an unknown mathematician. “Bounded Gaps Between Primes” by Yitang Zhang, an adjunct professor at the University of New Hampshire, immediately caught the attention of the editors as well as Professors in the School of Mathematics. It was refereed by mathematicians who were visiting the Institute at the time and was accepted three weeks later, an unusually expedited pace.

“He is not a fellow who had done much before,” says Peter Sarnak, Professor in the School of Mathematics. “No-body knew him. Thanks to the refereeing process, there were a lot of vibes here at the Institute long before the newspapers heard of it. His result was spectacular.”

The Origins and Motivations of Univalent Foundations

by Vladimir Voevodsky 

Diagram by Voevodsky
This three-dimensional diagram is an example of the kind of ­”formulas” that Voevodsky would have to use to support his arguments about 2-theories.

Professor Voevodsky’s Personal Mission to Develop Computer Proof Verification to Avoid Mathematical Mistakes

In January 1984, Alexander Grothendieck submitted to the French National Centre for Scientific Research his proposal “Esquisse d’un Programme.” Soon copies of this text started circulating among mathematicians. A few months later, as a first-year undergraduate at Moscow University, I was given a copy of it by George Shabat, my first scientific adviser. After learning some French with the sole purpose of being able to read this text, I started to work on some of the ideas outlined there.

In 1988 or 1989, I met Michael Kapranov who was equally fascinated by the perspectives of developing mathematics of new “higher-dimensional” objects inspired by the theory of categories and 2-categories.
The first paper that we published together was called “∞-Groupoids as a Model for a Homotopy Category.” In it, we claimed to provide a rigorous mathematical formulation and a proof of Grothendieck’s idea connecting two classes of mathematical objects: ∞-groupoids and homotopy types.

Later we decided that we could apply similar ideas to another top mathematical problem of that time: to construct motivic cohomology, conjectured to exist in a 1987 paper by Alexander Beilinson, Robert MacPherson (now Professor in the School of Mathematics), and Vadim Schechtman.

In the summer of 1990, Kapranov arranged for me to be accepted to graduate school at Harvard without applying. After a few months, while he was at Cornell and I was at Harvard, our mathematical paths diverged. I concentrated my efforts on motivic cohomology and later on motivic homotopy theory. My notes dated March 29, 1991, start with the question “What is a homotopy theory for algebraic varieties or schemes?”

The field of motivic cohomology was considered at that time to be highly speculative and lacking firm foundation. The groundbreaking 1986 paper “Algebraic Cycles and Higher K-theory” by Spencer Bloch was soon after publication found by Andrei Suslin to contain a mistake in the proof of Lemma 1.1. The proof could not be fixed, and almost all of the claims of the paper were left unsubstantiated.

My Random Walks with Pólya and Szegő

By Olga Holtz 

Olga Holtz lecturing at the Women and Mathematics Program at the Institute for Advanced Study (2014)
Olga Holtz (Photo: Dan Komoda)

The Making of a Mathematician

My love affair with George Pólya began when I was seventeen. It was in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and my first year at the university was coming to an end. I had come across a tiny local library with an even tinier math section, which nobody ever seemed to visit, and had taken out most of those math books one by one before I came across The Book. It was George Pólya’s Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning.

By that time I was a total bookworm, having devoured almost a thousand volumes of my parents’ home library, mostly fiction. My familiarity with math books was much poorer although, growing up, I had enjoyed Yakov Perelman’s popular books for children on math and physics. I was a proud graduate of a specialized math and physics school, the only one in town, and had had a few wins at local olympiads in math and science. A top kid in class as far back as I could remember, I was arrogant as hell.

I read the introduction to Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning and its Chapter I standing up next to the bookshelf. It read like a novel. A cerebral one alright, which made you pay quick attention. Chapter I started out in the least orthodox way, comparing mathematical induction to a domino chain. The book endeavoured to explain not only what was mathematically true but how and why. I was hooked. Chapter I ended with a list of problems. I solved a couple of them still standing up but quickly came to a halt on Problem 3.

The arrogance kicked in––I had to solve those problems. I still remember carrying that book home after I checked it out. It was late spring, gorgeous weather, bird songs in the air, romantic couples––you get the picture. I was besotted with The Book.

What Can We Do with a Quantum Computer?

By Andris Ambainis 

The study of quantum information could lead to a better understanding of the principles common to all quantum systems.

When I was in middle school, I read a popular book about programming in BASIC (which was the most popular programming language for beginners at that time). But it was 1986, and we did not have computers at home or school yet. So, I could only write computer programs on paper, without being able to try them on an actual computer. Surprisingly, I am now doing something similar—I am studying how to solve problems on a quantum computer. We do not yet have a fully functional quantum computer. But I am trying to figure out what quantum computers will be able to do when we build them.

The story of quantum computers begins in 1981 with Richard Feynman, probably the most famous physicist of his time. At a conference on physics and computation at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology, Feynman asked the question: “Can we simulate physics on a computer?”

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality

By Edward Frenkel 

How a conference at IAS began a new theory bridging the Langlands program in mathematics to quantum physics

The Institute for Advanced Study has played an important role in my academic life. I have fond memories of my first visit in 1992, when, a starstruck kid, I was invited by Gerd Faltings and Pierre Deligne to talk about my Ph.D. thesis, which I had just completed. In 1997, I spent a whole semester at the IAS during a special year on quantum field theory for mathematicians. I returned to the IAS on multiple occasions in 2007 to collaborate with Edward Witten, and then in 2008–09 to work with Robert Langlands and Ngô Bao Châu.

Perhaps one of the most memorable visits was the one that happened exactly ten years ago, in March of 2004. It is described below in the (slightly abridged) excerpt from my book Love and Math. A few months earlier,  Kari Vilonen, Mark Goresky, Dennis Gaitsgory, and I were chosen to receive a multimillion dollar grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work on a project aimed at establishing links between the Langlands program and dualities in quantum field theory. We felt like we were in uncharted territory: no mathematicians we knew had ever received grants of this magnitude before. Normally, mathematicians receive relatively small individual grants from the National Science Foundation. Here we were given a lot of resources to coordinate the work of dozens of mathematicians with the goal of making a concerted effort in a vast area of research. This sounded a bit scary, but the idea of surpassing the traditional, conservative scheme of funding mathematical research with a large injection of funds into a promising area was really exciting, so we could not say no. We turned to the Institute for Advanced Study as the place to foster innovation. As they say, the rest is history.

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