Noncommutative Analysis

Category: Thoughts on mathematics

Tapioca on page 49

To my long camping vacation this year I took the book “Topological Vector Spaces” by Alex and Wendy Robertson. I “inherited” this book (together with a bunch of other classics) from an old friend after he officially decided to leave academic mathematics and go into high-tech. The book is a small and thin hard-cover, with pages of high quality that are starting to become a delicious cream color.

I decided to read this book primarily because I like to read the books I have, but also because I am teaching graduate functional analysis in the coming semester and I wanted to amuse myself by toying with the possibility of de-emhasizing Banach spaces and giving a more general treatment that includes topological vector spaces. I enjoyed thinking about whether it can and/or should be done (the answers are yes and no, respectively).

Oh sister! I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed this book. They don’t write books like that any more. Published in 1964, the authors follow quite closely the tradition of Bourbaki. Not too closely, thankfully. For example they restrict attention from the outset to spaces over the real or complex numbers, and don’t torture the reader with topological division rings; moreover, the book is only 158 pages long. However, it is definitely written under the influence of Bourbaki. That is, they develop the whole theory from scratch in a self-contained, clean, efficient and completely rigorous way, working their way from the most general spaces to more special cases of spaces. Notions are given at the precise place where they become needed, and all the definitions are very economical. It is clear that every definition, lemma, theorem and proof were formulated after much thought had been given as to how they would be most useful later on. Examples (of “concrete” spaces to which the theory applies) are only given at the end of the chapters, in so called “supplements”. The book is rather dry, but it is a very subtly tasty kind of dry. The superb organization is manifested in the fact that the proofs are short, almost all of them are shorter than two (short) paragraphs, and only on rare occasion is a proof longer than a (small) page. There is hardly any trumpet blowing (such as “we now come to an important theorem”) and no storytelling, no opinions and no historical notes, not to mention references, outside the supplement. The author never address the reader. It seems that there is not one superfluous word in the text. Oh, well, perhaps there is one superfluous word.

After the definition of a precompact set in a (locally convex) topological vector space, the authors decided to illustrate the concept and added the sentence “Tapioca would make a suitable mental image”. This happens on page 49, and is the first and last attempt made by the authors to suggest a mental image, or any other kind of literary device. It is a little strange that in this bare desert of topological vector spaces, one should happen upon a lonely tapioca, just one time…

* * * * *

So, why don’t people write books like that any more? Of course, because this manner of writing went out of style. It had to become unfashionable, first of all, simply because old things always do. But we should also remember that mathematical style of writing is not disconnected from the cultural and philosophical surroundings. So perhaps in the 1930s and up to 1950s people could write dogmatically and religiously about mathematics, but as time went by it was becoming harder to write like this about anything.

In addition to this, it is interesting that there were also some opposition to Bourbaki, from the not much after the project took off, and until many many years later.

Not that I myself am a big fan. I personally believe that maximal generality is not conducive for learning, and I prefer, say, Discussion-SpecialCase-Definition-Example-Theorem-Proof to Definition-Theorem-Proof any day. I also don’t believe in teaching notions from the most general to the more specific. For example, in my opinion, set theory should not be taught-before-everything-else, etc. For another example, when I teach undergraduate functional analysis I start with Hilbert spaces and then do Banach spaces, which is inefficient from a purely logical point of view. But this is how humans learn: first we gurgle, then we utter words, then we speak; only much later do we learn about the notion of a language.

So, yes, I do find the books by Bourbaki hard to use (reading about all the pranks related to the Bourbaki gang, one cannot sometimes help but wonder wether it is all a gigantic prank). But I have a great admiration and respect for the ideals that group set and for some of its influences on mathematical culture. The book by Robertson and Robertson is an example of how to take the Bourbaki spirit and make something beautiful out of it. And because of my admiration and respect for this heritage, it is a little sad to know that Bourbaki was quite violently abused and denounced.

If you have ever read some harsh and mean criticism of the Bourbaki culture, if you have heard someone try to insult someone else by comparing them to Bourbaki, then please keep in mind this. Nobody really teaches three-year-olds set theory before numbers. In the beginning of every Bourbaki book (“To the reader”), it is explicitly stated that, even though in principle the text requires no previous mathematical knowledge on the part of the reader (besides the previous books in the series) “it is directed especially to those who have a good knowledge of at least the content of the first year or two of a university mathematics course”.  Bourbaki didn’t “destroy French mathematics” or any other nonsense. The source of violent opposition is not theological or pedagogical, but psychological. In my experience, the most fervent opponents of the Bourbaki tradition who I heard of, are people of non-neglible egos (and their students), who were simply very insulted to find out that a self-appointed, French-speaking(!) elite group decided to take the lead, without asking permission or inviting them (or their teachers). That hurt, and a crusade, spanning decades, ensued.

* * * * *

Well, let us return to the pleasant Robertsons. Besides the lonely tapioca, I found one other curious thing about this book. On the first page the names of the authors are written:

A.P. Robertson

(Professor of Mathematics

University of Keele)


Wendy Robertson

So, what’s the deal with A.P. and Wendy? Is A.P. a man? I guessed so. Are they brother and sister? Why is he a professor and she isn’t? Are they father and daughter? I wanted to find out. I found their obituaries: Wendy Robertson (she passed away last year) and Alexander Robertson.

So they were husband and wife, and it seems that they had a beautiful family and a happy life together, many years after writing this book together. I remained curious about one thing: whose idea was it to suggest tapioca? Did they immediately agree about this, or did they argue for weeks? Was it a lapse? Was it a conscious lapse?

* * * * *

In the course that I will teach in the coming semester, I am not going to use the language of topological vector spaces. I will concentrate on Banach spaces, then weak and weak-* topologies will enter. These are, of course, topological vector spaces, but there is no need to set up the whole framework to notice this, and there is no need to prove everything in the most general setting. For example, the students will be able to prove a Hahn-Banach extension theorem for, say, weak-* continuous functionals, by imitating the proof that I will give in class in a similar setting.

On Saturday I went to my nephew’s Bar-Mitzva, and they had tapioca for desert (not bad), and I thought about Wendy and Alex Robertson. Well, especially about Wendy. I think that it was her idea.



Journal of Xenomathematics

I am happy to advertise the existence of a new electronic journal/forum/website: Journal of Xenomathematics. Don’t worry, it’s not another new research journal. The editor is John E. McCarthy. The purpose is to discuss mathematics that is out of this world. Aren’t you curious?

Thirty one years later: a counterattack on Halmos’s critique of non-standard analysis

As if to celebrate in an original way the fifty year anniversary of Bernstein and Robinson’s solution to (a generalization of) the Smith-Halmos conjecture (briefly, that if T is an operator such that p(T) is compact for some polynomial p, then T has an invariant subspace), several notable mathematicians posted a interesting and very nonstandard (as they say) paper on the arxiv.

This paper briefly tells the story regarding the publication of this paper, in which Bernstein and Robinson use Robinson’s new theory of non-standard analysis (NSA) to prove the above mentioned conjecture in operator theory. This was one of the first major successes of NSA, and perhaps one would think that all of the operator theory community should have accepted the achievement with nothing but high praise. Instead, it was received somewhat coldly: Halmos went to work immediately to translate the NSA proof and published a paper proving the same result, with a proof in “standard” operator theoretic terms. (See the paper, I am leaving out the juicy parts). And then, since 1966 until 2000 (more or less), Halmos has been apparently at “war” with NSA (in the paper the word “battle” is used), and has also had criticism of logic; for example, it is implied in his book that he did not always consider logic to be a part of mathematics, worse, it seems that he has not always considered logicians to be mathematicians. (When I wrote about Halmos’s book a few months ago, I wrote that I do not agree with all the opinions expressed in the book, and I remember having the issue with logic and logicians in my mind when writing that).

In the paper that appeared on the arxiv today, the authors take revenge on Halmos. Besides a (convincing) rebuttal of Halmos’s criticisms, the seven authors hand Halmos at least seven blows, not all of them below the belt. The excellent and somewhat cruel title says it all: A non-standard analysis of a cultural icon: the case of Paul Halmos.

Besides some feeling of uneasiness in seeing a corpse being metaphorically stabbed (where have you been in the last thirty years?), the paper raises interesting issues (without wallowing too much on either one), and may serve as a lesson to all of us. There is nothing in this story special to operator theory versus model theory, or NSA, or logic. The real story here is the suspicion and snubbish-ness of mathematicians towards fields in which they do not work, and towards people working in these fields.

I see it all the time. Don’t kid me: you have also seen quite a lot of it. It is possible, I confess, that I have exercised myself a small measure of suspicion and contempt to things that I don’t understand. As the authors of the paper hint, these things are worse than wrong – they might actually hurt people.

Anyway, many times people who are ignorantly snobbish to other fields end up looking like idiots. Stop doing that, or thirty years from now a mob of experts will come and tear you to shreds.

P.S. – It seems that the question of who was the referee of the Bernstein-Robinson paper is not settled, though some suspect it was Halmos. Well, if someone could get their hands on the (anonymous!) referee report (maybe Bernstein or Robinson kept the letter?), I am quite sure that if it was Halmos, it would be clear. In other words, if Bernstein or Robinson suspected that it was him on account of the style, then I bet it was.


P.P.S. – regarding the theorem starting this discussion the quickest way to understand it is via Lomonosov’s theorem. The invariant subspace theorem proved by Bernstein and Robinson (polynomially compact operator has an invariant subspace) is now superseded by Lomonosov’s theorem (google it for a simple proof), which says that every bounded operator on a Banach space that commutes with a nonzero compact operator has a non-trivial invariant subspace.

Daniel Spielman talks at HUJI – thoughts

I got an announcement in the email about the “Erdos Lectures”, that will be given by Daniel Spielman in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem next week (here is the poster on Gil Kalai’s blog). The title of the first lecture is “The solution of the Kadison-Singer problem”. Recall that not long ago Markus, Spielman and Srivastava proved Weaver’s KS2 conjecture, which implies a positive solution to Kadison-Singer (the full story been worked out to expository perfection on Tao’s blog).

My immediate response to this invitation was to start planning a trip to Jerusalem on Monday – after all it is not that far, it’s about a solution of a decades old problem, and Daniel Spielman is sort of a Fields medalist. I highly recommend to everyone to go hear great scientists live whenever they have the opportunity. At worst, their lectures are “just” inspiring. It is not for the mathematics that one goes for in these talks, but for all the stuff that goes around mathematics (George Mostow’s unusual colloquium given at BGU on May 2013 comes to mind).

But then I remembered that I have some obligations on Monday, so I searched and found a lecture by Daniel Spielman with the same title online: here. Watching the slides with Spielman’s voice is not as inspiring as hearing and seeing a great mathematician live, but quite good. He makes it look so easy!

In fact, Spielman does not discuss KS at all. He says (about a minute into the talk) “Actually, I don’t understand, really, the Kadison-Singer problem”. A minute later he has a slide where the problem is written down, but he says “let me not explain what it is”, and sends the audience to read Nick Harvey’s survey paper (which is indeed very nice). These were off-hand remarks, and I should not catch someone at his spoken word, (and I am sure that even things that Spielman would humbly claim to “not understand, really”, he probably understands as well as I do, at least), but the naturality in which the KS problem was pushed aside in a talk about KS made we wonder.

In the post I put up soon after appearance of the paper I wrote (referring to the new proof of KS2) that “… this looks like a very nice celebration of the Unity of Mathematics”. I think that in a sense the opposite is also true. I will try to reformulate what I wrote.

“The solution of KS is a beautiful and intriguing manifestation of the chaotic, sticky, psychedelic, thickly interwoven, tangled, scattered, shattered and diffuse structure of today’s mathematics.”

I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean that a bunch of deep conjectures, from different fields, most of which, I am guessing, MSS were not worried about, were shown over several decades to be equivalent to each other, and were ultimately reduced (by Weaver) to a problem on the arrangement of vectors in finite dimensional spaces (Discrepancy Theory), and eventually solved, following years of hard work, by three brilliant mathematicians using ingenious yet mostly elementary tools. The problem solved is indeed interesting in itself, and the proof is also very interesting, but it seems that the connection with “Kadison-Singer” is more a trophy than a true reward.

It would be very interesting now to think of all the equivalent formulations with hindsight, and seek the unifying structure, and to try to glean a reward.



Measure theory is a must

[This post started out as an introduction to a post I was planning to write on convergence theorems for the Riemann integral. The introduction kind of got out hand, so I decided to post it separately. Since I have to get back to my real work, I will postpone writing that post on convergence theorems for the Riemann integral for another time, probably during the Passover break (but in any case before we need them for the course I am teaching this term, Calculus 2)].


Mathematicians love to argue about subjective opinions. One of the most tiresome and depressing subjects of debate is “What should an undergraduate math major curriculum contain?”


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Thoughts following the Notices opinion article

The December issue of the Notices of the AMS has quite a thought provoking opinion article by Doron Zeilberger. In fact I already read this piece earlier in Opinions of Dr. Z, but re-finding it in the notices re-kindled a feeling that I get so often: we (mathematicians) are lost. More precisely: we have lost contact with the ground. Read the rest of this entry »

Where have all the functional equations gone (the end of the story and the lessons I’ve learned)

This will be the last of this series of posts on my love affair with functional equations (here are links to parts one, two and three).

1. A simple solution of the functional equation

In the previous posts, I told of how I came to know of the functional equations

(*)  f(t) = f\left(\frac{t+1}{2}\right) + f \left( \frac{t-1}{2}\right) \,\, , \,\, t \in [-1,1]

and more generally

(**) f(t) = f(\delta_1(t)) + f(\delta_2(t)) \,\, , \,\, t \in [-1,1]

(where \delta_1 and \delta_2 satisfy some additional conditions) and my long journey to discover that these equations have, and now I will give it away… Read the rest of this entry »

Where have all the functional equations gone (part III)

The last post ended with the following problem:

Problem: Find all continuous solutions to the following functional equation:

(FE) f(t) = f\left(\frac{t+1}{2} \right) + f \left(\frac{t-1}{2} \right) \,\, , \,\, t \in [-1,1] .

In the previous post I explained why all continuously differentiable solutions of the functional equation (FE) are linear, that is, of the form f(x) = cx, but now we remove the assumption that the solution be continuously differentiable and ask whether the same conclusion holds. I found this problem to be extremely interesting, and at this point I will only give away that I eventually solved it, but after five (!) years.

In principle, it is plausible that, when one enlarges the space of functions in which one is searching for a solution from C^1[-1,1] to the much larger C[-1,1], then new solutions will appear. On the other hand, the dynamical system affiliated with this problem (the dynamical space generated by the maps \delta_1(t) = \frac{t+1}{2} and \delta_2(t) = \frac{t-1}{2} on the space [-1,1]) is minimal, and therefore one expects the functional equation to be rigid enough to allow only for the trivial solutions (at least under some mild regularity assumptions). In short, a good case can be made in favor of either a conjecture that all the continuous solutions are linear or a conjecture that there might be new, nonlinear solutions.

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Where have all the functional equations gone (part II)

I’ll start off exactly where I stopped in the previous post: I will tell you my solution to the problem my PDEs lecturer (and later master’s thesis advisor) Paneah gave us:

Problem: Find all continuously differentiable solutions to the following functional equation:

(FE) f(t) = f\left(\frac{t+1}{2} \right) + f \left(\frac{t-1}{2} \right) \,\, , \,\, t \in [-1,1] .

Before writing a solution, let me say that I think it is a fun exercise for undergraduate students, and only calculus is required for solving it, so if you want to try it now is your chance.

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Where have all the functional equations gone (part I)

My first encounter with research mathematics was in the last term of my undergraduate studies (spring 2003). My professor in the course “Introduction to Partial Differential Equations”, Prof. Boris Paneah, thought that it is pointless to give standard homework problems to students of pure mathematics, and instead he gave us several problems which were either extremely challenging, related to his research or related to advanced courses that he was going to give. This was a thrilling experience for me, and is one of the reasons why I decided not long after to do my master’s thesis under his supervision, since no other faculty member came even close to engaging us like Paneah (another reason was that the lectures themselves were fantastic). For example he suggested that we explore the ultrahyperbolic equation

u_{tt} + u_{ss} - u_{xx} - u_{yy} = 0 ,    in     \mathbb{R}^4,

or that we try to prove the existence of solutions to the two dimensional heat equation in a non-rectangular bounded region of the plane. I remember spending hours on the heat equation, unsuccessfully of course (if I was successful I would have probably become a PDE person). Especially memorable is the one time that he ended a lecture with the following three problems, which were, as you may guess, quite unrelated to the content of the lecture: Read the rest of this entry »