School of Mathematics
In early April 1972, Hugh Montgomery, who had been a Member in the School of Mathematics the previous year, stopped by the Institute to share a new result with Atle Selberg, a Professor in the School. The discussion between Montgomery and Selberg involved Montgomery’s work on the zeros of the Riemann zeta function, which is connected to the pattern of the prime numbers in number theory. Generations of mathematicians at the Institute and elsewhere have tried to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, which conjectures that the non-trivial zeros (those that are not easy to find) of the Riemann zeta function lie on the critical line with real part equal to 1⁄2.
Montgomery had found that the statistical distribution of the zeros on the critical line of the Riemann zeta function has a certain property, now called Montgomery’s pair correlation conjecture. He explained that the zeros tend to repel between neighboring levels. At teatime, Montgomery mentioned his result to Freeman Dyson, Professor in the School of Natural Sciences.
In the 1960s, Dyson had worked on random matrix theory, which was proposed by physicist Eugene Wigner in 1951 to describe nuclear physics. The quantum mechanics of a heavy nucleus is complex and poorly understood. Wigner made a bold conjecture that the statistics of the energy levels could be captured by random matrices. Because of Dyson’s work on random matrices, the distribution or the statistical behavior of the eigenvalues of these matrices has been understood since the 1960s.
By Mina Teicher
It is known that mathematicians see beauty in mathematics. Many mathematicians are motivated to find the most beautiful proof, and often they refer to mathematics as a form of art. They are apt to say “What a beautiful theorem,” “Such an elegant proof.” In this article, I will not elaborate on the beauty of mathematics, but rather the mathematics of beauty, i.e., the mathematics behind beauty, and how mathematical notions can be used to express beauty—the beauty of manmade creations, as well as the beauty of nature.
I will give four examples of beautiful objects and will discuss the mathematics behind them. Can the beautiful object be created as a solution of a mathematical formula or question? Moreover, I shall explore the general question of whether visual experience and beauty can be formulated with mathematical notions.
I will start with a classical example from architecture dating back to the Renaissance, move to mosaic art, then to crystals in nature, then to an example from my line of research on braids, and conclude with the essence of visual experience.
The shape of a perfect room was defined by the architects of the Renaissance to be a rectangular-shaped room that has a certain ratio among its walls—they called it the “golden section.” A rectangular room with the golden-section ratio also has the property that the ratio between the sum of the lengths of its two walls (the longer one and the shorter one) to the length of its longer wall is also the golden section, 1 plus the square root of 5 over 2. Architects today still believe that the most harmonious rooms have a golden-section ratio. This number appears in many mathematical phenomena and constructions (e.g., the limit of the Fibonacci sequence). Leonardo da Vinci observed the golden section in well-proportioned human bodies and faces—
in Western culture and in some other civilizations the golden-section ratio of a well-proportioned human body resides between the upper part (above the navel) and the lower part (below the navel).
By Helmut Hofer and Derek Bermel
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.—John Cage
Helmut Hofer, Professor in the School of Mathematics, writes:
Last September, the School of Mathematics launched its yearlong program with my Member seminar talk “First Steps in Symplectic Dynamics.” About two years earlier, it had become clear that certain important problems in dynamical systems could be solved with ideas coming from a different field, the field of symplectic geometry. The goal was then to bring researchers from the fields of dynamical systems and symplectic geometry together in a program aimed at the development of a common core and ideally leading to a new field—symplectic dynamics.
Not long before, in my 2010 inaugural public lecture at IAS, “From Celestial Mechanics to a Geometry Based on the Concept of Area,” I had described the historical background and some of the interesting mathematical problems belonging to this anticipated field of symplectic dynamics. The lecture began with a computer program showing chaos in the restricted three-body problem. This problem describes the movement of a satellite under the gravity of two big bodies, say the earth and the moon, in a rotating coordinates system in which the earth and the moon stay at fixed positions. The chaos in the system is illustrated by putting about ten satellites initially at almost the same position with almost the same velocity.
When the system starts evolving, the program shows colorful trackings of the paths of the satellites as they evolve from a simple single orbit to a complex multicolored tangle of orbits, once the orbits of the different satellites start separating.
By Ankur Moitra
How do we navigate the vast amount of data at our disposal? How do we choose a movie to watch, out of the 75,000 movies available on Netflix? Or a new book to read, among the 800,000 listed on Amazon? Or which news articles to read, out of the thousands written everyday? Increasingly, these tasks are being delegated to computers—recommendation systems analyze a large amount of data on user behavior, and use what they learn to make personalized recommendations for each one of us.
In fact, you probably encounter recommendation systems on an everyday basis: from Netflix to Amazon to Google News, better recommendation systems translate to a better user experience. There are some basic questions we should ask: How good are these recommendations? In fact, a more basic question: What does “good” mean? And how do they do it? As we will see, there are a number of interesting mathematical questions at the heart of these issues—most importantly, there are many widely used algorithms (in practice) whose behavior we cannot explain. Why do these algorithms work so well? Obviously, we would like to put these algorithms on a rigorous theoretical foundation and understand the computational complexity of the problems they are trying to solve.
By Richard Taylor
Modular arithmetic has been a major concern of mathematicians for at least 250 years, and is still a very active topic of current research. In this article, I will explain what modular arithmetic is, illustrate why it is of importance for mathematicians, and discuss some recent breakthroughs.
For almost all its history, the study of modular arithmetic has been driven purely by its inherent beauty and by human curiosity. But in one of those strange pieces of serendipity which often characterize the advance of human knowledge, in the last half century modular arithmetic has found important applications in the “real world.” Today, the theory of modular arithmetic (e.g., Reed-Solomon error correcting codes) is the basis for the way DVDs store or satellites transmit large amounts of data without corrupting it. Moreover, the cryptographic codes which keep, for example, our banking transactions secure are also closely connected with the theory of modular arithmetic. You can visualize the usual arithmetic as operating on points strung out along the “number line.”