The Best Writing on Mathematics 2019

This is the 10th volume in this series reprinting every year a collection of diverse texts on mathematics (i.e., not necessarily mathematical papers) that are accessible to a broad public. I have been reviewing these books since 2012, and I have repeatedly explained the idea behind the concept and the kind of papers that are selected in my reviews. These ideas have not changed in this anniversary volume, so I will not repeat them here. If you are not familiar with the concept of the series, you can look it up and read all about it in the previous reviews 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.

This volume reprints 18 papers almost all originally published in 2018. The fact that the subjects of the papers are usually crossing the boundary between two or more domains is one of their interesting features. It is remarkable how smoothly the sequence of papers in this book migrates from one subject into the next, due to a careful selection and collation strategy of the editor.

For example the first paper links geometry to gerrymandering. The latter is a manipulative subdivision of the sets of voters in a the-winner-takes-it-all system to enforce some outcome of the voting. Finding a fair subdivision is a combinatorial problem that can only be solved in a feasible time using Markov Chain Monte Carlo techniques. This smoothly connects to the next paper about a problem from the Scottish Book, a legendary diary from Polish mathematicians meeting in Lviv (Poland) in the 1930's. The problem posed by Hugo Steinhaus in there gave rise to the ham-sandwich theorem, which is also about a problem of fair partitioning. In two dimensions the problem reduces to cutting a pizza and all of its ingredients distributed on top into fair parts.

Politicians may be interested in gerrymandering and perhaps even in fair distribution, but they may also have something to say on the educational system, and in how to distribute different subjects that children have to learn over a limited education time. In that respect it is important to know if mathematics learns children how to think. Some claim that this can also be learned by studying languages (like Greek and Latin), computer science, or even by solving brain teasers and puzzles. After a careful analysis of this question in relation with different mathematical subjects, the authors of the next paper, conclude with some recommendations on how to teach calculus.

Speaking of puzzles, the next paper deals with the Rubik's cube and all its generalizations that were realized practically or that were studied on an abstract mathematical basis. Three-dimensional geometry of the cubes brings the reader to the next paper discussing 3D objects that when viewed from different viewpoints create some optical illusions. This optical paradox is geometrically analysed and ingeniously illustrated using a picture of the object simultaneously with its reflection in a mirror representing the alternative viewpoint. The mirror is a perfect link to the detection of mirror symmetry in string theory, which became an important subject in both theoretical physics and algebraic geometry.

The illustrations in the texts are grey-scale, but when in the original text they were in colour, then sometimes the caption of a grey-scale image refers a line or area of a certain colour. To mitigate this, colour versions of the illustrations of all the papers are collected at this point of the book. This somewhat hides the abrupt switch to more computer related papers that now follow. The first of these more computational type texts is about the application of a so called probabilistic abacus to find the probability that some event will happen. This computational mechanism was invented by A. Engel in 1975. It simulates a finite game played on a graph based on chip-firing. This computational technique is now known as Engel's algorithm.

Computers play also an increasing role in the analysis and classification of integer sequences. The on-line encyclopedia (OEIS) started by Neil Sloane in 1996 had 100k entries in 2004. Sloane's paper in this collection is listing some fascinating examples among which an (in 2018) recent entry 250000. At the time of writing this review (Jan 2020) the OEIS has 331811 entries and counting. If anything is related to computers nowadays, then it is certainly big data. That topic made a bliz career in research funding and was promptly turned into a buzz word. The next paper briefly discusses examples of well known big date problems: from search engines to health care to recommender systems to farming, and I am sure we haven't seen the last of it

What can be computed or even what can be decided is a fundamental question to ask in computer science as well as in mathematics (cfr. the halting problem and Gödel's incompleteness theorem). The next paper explains that deciding whether all materials have a spectral gap (i.e. the gap between the energy of the ground state and the first excited state) is proved to be impossible, using Turing machines and ideas from plane tilings. Computer generated proofs and verifying proofs by computers become more and more common practice. That is illustrated with some historical examples in a paper that is wondering how we should proceed for the future.

Quantum physics and the quest for a theory of everything has divided physics research. The pure mathematical labyrinth in which theoretical physics has evolved as opposed to the classical empirical physics is not completely unrelated to mathematical models that have been designed for other scientific disciplines. The phenomena one wants to study are simplified to models that isolate some interesting characteristics. Given such a model (as a set of equations and constraints), also solving the models analytically or computationally, may require further simplifications to become feasible. Computed results are validated and when not matching with reality, the model may need adaptation. Is not mathematics of modelling here a kind of empirical science. This brings us on the verge of philosophy about mathematics. More philosophy is in a paper asking what it means that 2+3=5 (what is meant is adding of numbers, not counting quantities), Do the numbers 2 and 3 actually exist? We assume they do, since it is so obvious. But why then prove Fermat's last theorem while it is so obvious that it must hold? More on philosophy, in particular about the link to the history of mathematics is illustrated in a paper about Gregory's notion of infinitesimals and continuity as compared to the Weierstrass approach of epsilon-delta definitions. Some purists think infinitesimals are evil, others consider it a blessing to work with. The authors however conclude that eventually, after closer analysis, the two historical approaches are not that different.

We humans do not like chaos. We try to make sense of things and are constantly looking for patterns. The Kolmogorov complexity corresponds to finding the shortest program that can describe some (mathematical) object like for example a sequence. This links back to the previously discussed problem of computability or decidability. The seemingly complex problem to describe "the smallest number that cannot be described by less that 15 words" is trivial and yet impossible to grasp. Just like an infinitesimal, something smaller than anything finite and yet not zero is difficult to conceive, and still easy to describe and work with.

What we believe to be true and what actually is true is, with the constant exposure to information, an important issue in an epoch of fake news. Statistics is in this respect a seemingly scientific tool to sustain some fact, but unfortunately, it is easily misused. A paper discussing this ethical issue gives some recommendations about this like: be open about data and methods, be aware of the limitations of statistics, be open for criticism, etc. and I would like to add to that: be careful about causality claims.

The two remaining contributions are diverse. One is a plea to return to the original idea of Fields when he installed the Fields Medal. Should one recognize brilliant mathematicians who accomplished something big in mathematics and thus are already "established", or should one celebrate a mathematician who is pioneering a new field in mathematics? The original idea was to stimulate (international) collaboration, not competition. Since the Fields Medal got the status of a mathematical Nobel Prize around the 1960's, that original idea is violated and it became the subject of competition. The last paper is about an Eulogy delivered by Melvyn Nathanson for Paul Erdős in 1996 shortly after Erdős passed away, and some considerations Nathanson has to add now (in 2018). The paradox of Erdős is that he was enormously prolific and versatile, even creating new fields and yet he never embraced the new mathematical domains of the twentieth century. How could he publish such important theorems and yet know relatively little?

I should also mention the list of interesting books that appeared in 2018 and that get some recommendation from Pitici. As in previous volumes there is also a long list of papers that could have been selected as well for this collection (but they were not) and of other writings such as reviews of books and essays, teaching notes, and special journal issues. Thus this book is again a most interesting collection of mathematics related papers of the usual quality.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is volume 10 of Picici's annual harvest of papers on diverse topics related to mathematics that are collected from different journals and books. The contributions relate mathematics to philosophy, history, education, communication, computer science, games, puzzles, statistics, etc. Most of them were published in 2018 and are written for a generally interested readership.

Author:  Publisher: 
9780691198675 (hbk), 9780691198354 (pbk), 9780691197944 (ebk)
£ 66.00 (hbk), £ 20.00 (pbk)