Another question that continues to puzzle me (and to which I still don’t have a complete answer to) is: *why do I continue to inflict upon myself the tortures of international travel, such as ten hour jet lag or trans-atlantic flights?* More generally, I spent a lot of time wondering: *why do I continue going to conferences? Is it worth it for me? Is it worth the university’s money? Is it worth it for mankind? *

Last week I attended the Joint Mathematics Meeting in San-Diego. It was my first time in such a big conference. I will probably not return to such a conference for a while, since it is not so “cost effective”. I guess that I am a small workshop kind of person.

I spoke in and attended all the talks in the Free Convexity and Free Analysis special session, which was excellent. Here is the abstract and here are the slides of my talk (the slides). I also attended some of the talks in the special sessions on Advances in Operator Algebras, Operators on Function Spaces in One and Several Variables, and another one on Advances in Operator Theory, Operator Algebras, and Operator Semigroups*. *I also attended several plenary talks, which were all quite entertaining.

I am happy to report that the field of free analysis and free convexity is in really good shape! There was a sequence of talks in the first day (Hartz, Passer, Evert and Kriel) by three very young researchers on free convexity that really put me into high spirits! The field is blossoming and the competition is healthy and friendly. But the talk that got me most excited was the talk by Jim Agler, who gave a preliminary report on joint work with John McCarthy and Nicholas Young regarding noncommutative complex manifolds. Now, at first it might seem that nc manifolds will be hard to make sense of, because how can you take direct sums of points in a manifold, etc. Moreover, the only take on the free manifolds that I met before was Voiculescu’s construction of the free projective plane, which I found hard to swallow and kind of ruined my appetite for the subject.

However, it turns out that one can define a noncommutative complex manifold as topological space that carries an atlas of charts where is an open subset of and is a homeomorphism form an nc domain onto , such that given two intersecting charts , the map going from to is an nc biholomorphism. **This definition is so natural and clear that I want to shout! **Agler went on and showed us how one can construct a noncommutative Riemann surface, for example the Riemann surface corresponding to the noncommutative square root function. How can one **not** want to hear more of this? I am looking forward very enthusiastically to see what Agler, McCarthy and Young are up to this time; it looks like a very promising direction to study.

Among the plenary talks that I attended (see here for description), the one given by Avi Wigderson struck me the most. I went to the talk simply for mathematical entertainment (a.k.a. to broaden my horizons), but I was very pleasantly surprised to find completely positive maps and free functions in a talk that was supposed to be about computational complexity. I went to the first two talks but missed the third one because I had an opportunity to have lunch with a friend and collaborator, which in any respect was more important to me than the lecture. The above link (here it is again) contains links to a tutorial and papers related to Wigderson’s talks, and I hope to find time to study that, and at least catch up on what I missed in the third talk.

One more thing: there was one quite eminent operator theorist who is long retired, and came to several of the sessions that I attended. At some point I noticed that after every talk a came up to the speaker and said several words of encouragement or advice. Seeing such a pure expression of kindness and love of humanity was touching and inspiring. Upon later reflection, I noticed that such expressions were happening around me all the time, for example when another “celebrity” in our field arrived and a hugging (!) session began. This memory brings a smile to my face. Well, maybe going to San-Diego was worth it, after all.

**Additional thoughts January 26: **

- The tutorial that you can find in “the above link” seems to cover all of Wigderson’s talk.
- I have had some more thoughts on “big conferences”. The good thing about them is that it gives an opportunity to interact with people people outside one’s own academic bubble, and attend high level talks by prominent mathematicians. The bad thing is that you fly far away, waste tons of grant money, and in the end have only a small time to discuss your research topic with experts. So: to go or not to go? I’ve found a solution! Attend
**local**big conferences. Fly across the world only to meet with special colleagues or participate in focused and effective workshops or conferences on your subject of main interest. (And if they invite you to give a plenary talk at the ICM, then, OK, you should probably go).

Here are a few of links that I read and on which I base this post: an obituary by John Baez, with some links, including to an account by himself of the origins of “univalent foundations”, and also this obituary on the IAS site.

Here I want to write about several aspects of Voevodsky’s story which struck me. Note, it is written from the point of view of a mathematician who has not studied his work at all. I surely am not qualified to give an account of his development of motivic cohomology and his solution of Milnor’s conjecture, achievements for which he won the Fields Medal, nor the development of *Univalent Foundations* or *Homotopy Type Theory *(though I am certainly determined to read the first chapters in the book on homotopy type theory *whenever I find the time*)*.* What really drew my attention in what I read about Voevodsky is the human story of a mathematician and his struggle. It is a story that can be understood by “human-level-IQ mathematicians” – in fact by any person – and it raises some disturbing and disheartening issues. Beyond the human story, there is the story of mathematics – our fractal and fragile profession, which at times seems to be standing on firm ground, and at times seems to be hanging on thin air.

Here are some key parts the story, brutally retold. (The quoted texts below here taken from this account by Voevodsky. The personal information is from the Wikipedia page or the obituaries linked above.)

**The existential nightmare. **Voevodsky apparently did not finish his undergraduate studies at Moscow State University (wiki says that he “flunked”!). However, as a first year undergrad he started reading a manuscript of Grothendiek’s and since then tried to develop his own mathematical ideas. He met Michael Kapranov and together they published a paper “-Groupoids as a Model for Homotopy Category”, where they “claimed to provide a rigorous mathematical formulation and a proof of Grothendieck’s idea…”. Based on this exceptional achievement (presumably), Kapranov arranged for Voevodsky to be accepted to Harvard graduate school (Voevodsky did not apply, and didn’t even know that this was being arranged!) where he worked under the supervision of David Kazhdan. He continued to do outstanding work, and went on to solve famous conjectures, get appointed to the Institute of Advanced Studies, and win the Fields Medal.

What a romantic story! But Voevodsky tells us what happened later:

In October 1998, Carlos Simpson submitted to the arXiv preprint server a paper called “Homotopy Types of Strict 3-groupoids.” It claimed to provide an argument that implied that the main result of the “∞-groupoids” paper, which Kapranov and I had published in 1989, cannot be true. However, Kapranov and I had considered a similar critique ourselves and had convinced each other that it did not apply. I was sure that we were right until the fall of 2013 (!!).

Voevodsky is telling us that his first paper, which boosted his stellar career, turned out to be flawed – the main result was not true! Moreover, he was not able (maybe it was an emotional block, maybe too much work) to settle the issue of who is right for 15 years!! The horror of this situation is unbearable. Or maybe it is not so horrifying – maybe at times he did not care any more, not enough to resolve it?

And another question comes to mind: what if he found his mistake, when he was writing the paper? What if he could not fix it (it was not fixable), and gave up on mathematics? So, should we, should he, be happy that he made this mistake? He also says that Kapranov and he considered this critique, but convinced themselves that it did not apply. Well, what if they still had doubts? Would ignoring these doubts have been the right thing to do? Was scratching the paper the right thing to do? But then maybe there would never have been an arrangement to have Voevodsky study at Harvard, maybe he would have not continued his mathematical pursuits.

Does it make any difference if a paper on -groupoids is correct or not? If a result is proven in a paper, and nobody ever finds the mistake, is it as good as true? If a person got a job, or tenure, on the basis of wrong paper – should he be dismissed? If you write a paper, and find a big mistake, should you withhold the information until the situation gets clearer? After all, its not your fault that you were even more diligent than Voevodsky, and found *your own* mistake, is it?

**The referee’s concerns. **But these are not the only mistakes coming up in this story. Voevodsky tells:

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.

A new proof, which replaced one paragraph from the original paper by thirty pages of complex arguments, was not made public until 1993, and it took many more years for it to be accepted as correct. Interestingly, this new proof was based on an older result of Mark Spivakovsky, who, at about the same time, announced a proof of the resolution of singularities conjecture. Spivakovsky’s proof of resolution of singularities was believed to be correct for several years before being found to contain a mistake. The conjecture remains open.

The approach to motivic cohomology that I developed with Andrei Suslin and Eric Friedlander circumvented Bloch’s lemma by relying instead on my paper “Cohomological Theory of Presheaves with Transfers,” which was written when I was a Member at the Institute in 1992–93. In 1999–2000, again at the IAS, I was giving a series of lectures, and Pierre Deligne (Professor in the School of Mathematics) was taking notes and checking every step of my arguments. Only then did I discover that the proof of a key lemma in my paper contained a mistake and that the lemma, as stated, could not be salvaged. Fortunately, I was able to prove a weaker and more complicated lemma, which turned out to be sufficient for all applications. A corrected sequence of arguments was published in 2006.

What’s going on? So many flawed papers. Makes one wonder *who were the charlatans who refereed these papers and accepted them for publication*. Of course, I am kidding. It really makes one wonder: *am I, as referee, accepting flawed paper after flawed paper? *Doesn’t it happen to all of us that we review a paper, it is a hard and technical paper, and then there is this lemma, which we can *convince* ourselves is true, but is it really true? It would be really hard to get to the bottom of this, and the other parts of the paper seem fine, and it is Voevodsky, mind you, who is author… I don’t really have time to check each and every lemma in this paper! It’s not my job! Can we let just this lemma pass? In fact, maybe we should, we do not want to block the next Voevodsy?

**The working mathematician’s toil. **If there are these truly important papers out there, by the leaders of our field, that are flawed, some of them even dead wrong, then what is the meaning of all this? Maybe there are more wrong papers, and nobody ever noticed? Does it even matter? Should I quit my job and become a carpenter, build real thing? Voevodsky says:

But to do the work at the level of rigor and precision I felt was necessary would take an enormous amount of effort and would produce a text that would be very hard to read. And who would ensure that I did not forget something and did not make a mistake, if even the mistakes in much more simple arguments take years to uncover?

To me, the most inspiring part of Voevodsky’s story, is the way that he chose to handle the crisis that he observed mathematics is in. First of all, he honestly admitted that there is a problem, and he decided to confront it.

And it soon became clear that the only long-term solution was somehow to make it possible for me to use computers to verify my abstract, logical, and mathematical constructions.

But his pursuit for truth was much deeper than a superficial slogan “use computers”:

The primary challenge that needed to be addressed was that the foundations of mathematics were unprepared for the requirements of the task. Formulating mathematical reasoning in a language precise enough for a computer to follow meant using a foundational system of mathematics not as a standard of consistency to establish a few fundamental theorems, but as a tool that can be employed in everyday mathematical work.

And so he undertook the herculean task of developing new foundations for mathematics !! (of course, not alone). Could this enormous pressure, coming from within, from his own intellectual honestly, be what drove him to a breakdown? Probably, but not much information is given in the obituaries, since this stuff is very personal. Is it possible that it is not this pressure that led to his death at the very young age of 51?

**The graduate student’s ordeal. **

So let us return to the paper “Cohomological Theory of Presheaves with Transfers”, a very important paper which was certainly studied in many seminars worldwide. And imagine the budding graduate student, who doesn’t understand this lemma.

“Can you explain this?” he asks, and everybody volunteers to explain: “think of it this way…” says the veteran grad student, “it’s like bla bla blab la” and waves his hands. “Well, I see why its *morally* right”, says the budding one, “but I don’t understand the proof…”. Some others try to help, while the graduate starts to regret having asked. The postdoc moves uneasily in her chair. “What a waste of time!” she thinks, to be explaining lemmas to graduates students, and encourages: “I also had problems understanding that one, it’s one of those things that you have to work out on your own”. The supervisor recalls vaguely that he too had to work to understand that lemma (in fact, it was when he refereed the paper!) and that one could fix it somehow…. “um, technically I am not sure that this is precise, but we don’t really need the full power of the lemma, um, one can fix it” he says “now how did that go?”. Everybody waits “You know what, I’ll have to check my notes, why don’t we assume the lemma now and proceed”. And the budding graduate student is left with the feeling that everyone here is a clown except himself, or alternatively that everyone here is genius except himself, and maybe it isn’t that difficult and perhaps all this is not for him…

**The tired mathematician’s worry. **

So at the end, Voevodsky and many other mathematicians have set off to develop new foundations for mathematics, which, among other things, might make it easier to use computers to check proofs. Is this a good development? Is it necessary? Will it really help?

(If they can check our proofs, maybe the computers can do research on their own? Maybe they can also read one another’s papers. Imagine a world where all research mathematician are actually computers: how different would that world be? )

Do I have to invest myself in learning these new foundations? Should I wait? Maybe my field requires a different foundations and a different computer system to check it – is it a good idea to pursue these ideas?

Maybe all that “univalent nonsense” is important only if you want to work on Grothendiek-style shenanigan. If you do honest mathematics that actually relates to reality, you’re probably on safe ground and have nothing to worry about. Should I be worried?

*** * * * ***

To be honest, I am not very worried. I am split between being two opposite opinions. On the one hand, I am somewhat angry and disappointed at Mathematical Culture for **not** putting enough emphasis on correctness and understanding. It is clear that different people have very different notions of “understanding” and “knowing”. On the other hand, I think that mistakes are part of life, and also part of science, and therefore can and should be permitted be part of mathematics. These things happen, and by a process of mutation and selection, we hopefully evolve. (In passing, a request: please post corrigenda to your papers/books/etc.; perhaps math will move on without the corrigendum, but at least you can help that budding graduate student survive grad school in one piece).

And although I am very curious about univalent foundations, I cannot learn it in any deep way without stopping everything I am doing, and this won’t happen (one of the reasons why it won’t happen is that I am very skeptical). The details of Voevodsy’s mathematics, I feel, are not the important part of the story. The heart of the story is the determination to follow truth according to one’s standards and convictions, which is relevant far beyond mathematics, and which everyone can follow within their limitations. And maybe in this story there is also is a warning, or a calling, that those who come too close to the light, might burn.

]]>Several months ago I informed both MathSciNet as well as Zentralblatt that I would like to stop reviewing papers for these repositories. If you don’t know what I am talking about (your PhD thesis advisor should be fired!), then MathSciNet and Zentralblatt are databases that index published papers in mathematics, contains some bibliographic information (such as a reference list for every paper, as well as a list of papers that reference it), and, significantly, has a review for every indexed paper. The reviews are written by mathematicians who do so voluntarily (they get AMS points or something). If the editors find nobody willing to review, then the abstract appears instead of a review. This used to a very valuable tool, and is still quite valuable.

I quit because:

- I don’t have time for the voluntary work for free. This doesn’t mean that I don’t do any voluntary work for free – but since I don’t have time for this I have to be very picky about what voluntary work I do.
- This service is very useful for old papers that are hard to get a hand on, or that are written in a language that is not English. It used to be a very good way to stay up-to-date with works in the field. Today, the standard is that almost all papers are written in English and are available freely online. The actual added value of having this external review available is significantly lower than it used to be.
- I think that we, as a community, are not doing a good enough job of refereeing papers (I feel this as referee, author, and now also as an editor). I think that if we have some time that we are going to spend volunteering for reviewing papers, we shouldn’t split it up between refereeing and reviewing for databases. We should concentrate on refereeing, which is a crucial part of the mathematical eco-system, and not waste it on reviews, which are in a large part redundant.
- Reviewing papers has advantages also for the reviewer: it can discipline and focus the reviewer for staying up-to-date and working through current papers. However, in the current system, the papers are reviewed
**after they appeared in print (or online)**. This is ridiculously late. I do like to review papers some time, but the appropriate time to do this is after they appear as preprints on the arxiv. Then I can use my blog to post these reviews. Yes, this is not a standard platform, but nothing is perfect.

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This is post is reply to (part of) a post by Scott Aaronson. I got kind of heated up by his unfair portrayal of the blog “Stop Timothy Gowers!!!“, and started writing a reply which got to be ridiculously long, so I moved it here.

Dear Scott,

I think that, as others remarked in the comments, you unfairly portray sowa’s blog. It is much more than just a rant against Gowers, and contains some “positive” contributions (agreed, the “positive” ones are mostly historical/philosophical/other and not Gowers-style exposition, so what?). But even if it was true that that blog just had “negative” comments, I think it has a place. Here are some points to consider.

(Before the points, this is written in defense of sowa, and not in damnation of Gowers. I have never met either, I didn’t read their papers, I don’t agree with everything sowa said about Gowers, and I am willing to bet that Gowers is a very nice guy and a gentleman.)

**1) “Lack of exposition” I.** You wonder why doesn’t sowa for once take a break from discussing (say) the epochal greatness of Grothendiek, and “walk us through examples”. Well, he uses his blog to write about things he cares about. For serious mathematics he has others outlets. He wants to discuss the politics of mathematics, and he wants to oppose the what he sees as the current trends and power structure. There are politics in mathematics and there are power structures, fads, trends, celebrities, etc. These things affect the development of mathematics, where people go, where the money goes. These are totally legitimate issues to address.

**2) “Lack of exposition” II.** The kind of blogging that tries to teach some mathematics, expose it in a simplified way that non-experts can understand, is very difficult to do. I try to do it on my own blog, and honestly, I sometimes wonder whether the piece I wrote has any value at all. It happens (to me, and maybe also to you) that by the time you reach the beef, you run of breath, or out of time, or you realize that you cannot do this technical part any better than original paper or book that you linked to. And as a reader, when reading expositions on certain blogs or expository journals (or colloquium talks) I sometimes say to myself: the author really tried to walk me through this piece of mathematics/science or through their thought process, but unfortunately was unsuccessful in conveying any substantial information. So I can totally understand a blogger who feels that writing these friendly expository pieces is not useful, and spend no time on that.

**3) Symmetry.** You mention that there is asymmetry between them: Gowers writes about math, and sowa writes about Gowers. Well, you are right, there really isn’t symmetry: Gowers is at the center, and sowa is peripheral. Gowers has power and influence, and sowa thinks that Gowers has too much. So it is ridiculous to point out that sowa is just complaining and not talking math, and that Gowers isn’t wasting time complaining about politics. When it comes to the power structure in mathematics, Gowers doesn’t have much to complain about (although, being human, he does actually complain and rant on his blog, when the issues are not the ones where he happens to be up).

I want to emphasize a fallacy you have made: You point to the asymmetry as an answer to a question you raise: “How could a neutral observer possibly decide who was right?” (You mean, if the neutral observer didn’t care to weigh the actual statements made?) Interesting question, but your answer seems all wrong to me. The person complaining might have a strong point – that’s why he is so upset! – and the person not complaining might be comfortable enough.

**4) The three cultures in this discussion. **Scott, you are an American, watching from the side an exchange between an (apparently) Eastern European raised mathematician and an English mathematician. To you, it might seem like the first is shouting, and the second is being the most polite and maybe even gallant person ever. These differences in culture can distract from the actual points made. So the best thing to do would be to concentrate on the points themselves, and not on the volume.

**5) The point of the matter I.** As pointed out by eminent mathematicians, there is a certain periodic movement in the mainstream culture of mathematics, between the abstract and theoretical developments, on the one hand, and more concrete, problem-driven work, on the other. Very roughly speaking, Sowa on his blog advocated a certain style of mathematics, or a certain way of doing mathematics, which he felt was the best one. His point of view on what is good mathematics can be summarized in one word: “Grothendiek”. He very often used Gowers as an example of bad trends in mathematics, giving arguments against points-of-view publicized by Gowers. But in the beginning that blog did not look like a crusade against Gowers, and had the pleasant name: “Notes of an owl”. Sowa was just another force affecting the perpetual periodic motion in mathematical philosophy.

If I get the story, sowa really lost his top when it became known that Gowers would be presenting the work of Abel prize winner Pierre Deligne (and as his blog says, that’s when he changed the title of his blog to the current one). He stated his opinion that Gowers is unqualified to speak about Deligne’s work. Is it unacceptable to raise such a point? I think that it is (though I am in no way competent to answer the question of what Gowers is capable of). He also made a point that it was the third time in a row that Gowers was chosen to present the life work of an Abel prize winner. This is an even more valid point to make.

I know that everybody says that Gowers is a brilliant expositor. Well, I also saw a video of the lecture “The importance of mathematics” by Gowers and it was, indeed, a wonderful talk. I recall thinking that it is one of the best lectures I saw in my life (and for sure the best one that I saw on video). So I am convinced that he has the capability of expositoring exquisitely. But nobody is perfect, and no-one irreplaceable.

I stopped reading Gowers’s Blog some time ago, but there was a time that I tried to read a lot. I know what people are talking about when they speak of his posts as an intellectually honest journey, where he takes you by the hand and leads you through his thought process; I know what they are talking about, but I interpret this “leads you through his thought process” as lazy writing. Reading some of his old posts I got the notion that he hasn’t thought it all out before writing, and that his “delete” button is broken. Now, I don’t want to go and search for the old posts that I read and did not like (as Gowers once said: “I don’t have the information at the tip of my fingers”…), I am not out to prove that Gowers is a **bad** expositor, of course he isn’t; my point is just that different people might find different styles of expositoring appealing or useful. So the question, whether it is correct to have the same person present the prize three times in a row is, seems to me to be right on. And maybe, if you liked the style of the guy who did it the first time, then you wouldn’t have raised that question “is he the right person”, when he was chosen for the third time in a row. But once the question is raised, you cannot ignore it just because it is kind of rude to ask it.

**6) The point of the matter II****. **Another harsh criticism of sowa on Gowers (too harsh, I think, but basically right) is on the matter of publishing in mathematics. It is ironic that one of the good things that you (Scott) have to say about Gowers is that “He’s also been a leader in the fight to free academia from predatory publishers”. Google “predatory publishers”, I don’t think it means what you think it does. Indeed he played a creditable role as a leader in the boycott against Elsevier (about which I had doubts, I won’t go into that). But Gowers, in my opinion, abused his reputation and played a very dangerous role in actually **vindicating** predatory publishers, when he helped to set up Gold Open Access journals (see also this). In his defense, he seems to be very thoughtful and careful about these matters, is aware of the dangers, and has also later set up an arXiv overlay journal. Sowa has a lot to say on this matter, and here too, and I agree with some of the points he makes.

Recall, that by Sz.-Nagy’s dilation theorem, given contraction acting on a Hilbert space , one can always construct a unitary acting on a Hilbert space , such that

(*) ,

(Here denotes the orthogonal projection of onto .) The operator is called a **unitary dilation** of . This simple theorem is the starting point of a ton of developments in operator theory on Hilbert spaces.

In the setting of operator on Banach spaces, we say that that an operator acting on a Banach space **has a dilation**, if there exists a Banach space , an invertible isometry , and two contractions and , such that

(**) ,

It is quite easy to see that if both and are Hilbert spaces, then this boils down to the definition (*). Moreover, invertible isometry seems like the right generalization of unitary, and examining (**) for , we see that must be isometric, and is the projection onto . In this setting it is understood that we are looking for invertible isometric dilations, and no adjective is used alongside the word “dilation”. (Other kinds of dilations can also be considered, i.e., one can search for a positive dilation, etc.) Note that for an operator to have a dilation it must be a contraction, and we shall always understand that operators for which we seek a dilation are contractions.

One very simple thing I learned from this paper is that the existence of a dilation for every contraction in the setting of **all** Banach spaces is a ridiculously trivial matter: one just constructs , (the bounded functions ), defines

,

(where the is in the th place), one lets be the left shift, and be the projection onto th summand. (A similar construction is given in the paper, using .) The key point of this paper is that this might not be very helpful unless shares with some regularity properies, such as being a Hilbert space, reflexivity, being an space on a finite measure space, etc. For example, if one wants to remain in the realm of Hilbert spaces, the above construction does not work, and one needs to proceed differently (the usual proof of the dilation theorem in Hilbert spaces (see Wikipedia) uses the existence of a square root; basic, but not trivial). In this post we will always understand that the we seek is to be chosen from within a well defined class of Banach spaces.

The authors don’t concentrate on the problem of finding a dilation for a single operator. They treat a more general problem, and this generality is actually a key to their proof. They make the following definition:

**Definition: **Let be a class of Banach spaces and let . A set of bounded operators on , say , is said to have a **simultaneous dilation **(in ), if there exists a and a set of invertible isometries , together with contractions and , such that

for all and all .

The main theorem is as follows (Theorem 2.9 in the paper):

**Theorem: ***Suppose that is a family of reflexive Banach spaces, that is closed under finite direct sums (for some fixed ) and closed under ultra-products. If is a family of bounded operators on has simultaneous dilation in , then so does the weak-operator closure of the convex hull of . *

For example, the family of all unitaries on a Hilbert space have simultaneous dilation (trivially). Since the weak operator convex hull of unitaries contains all contractions, we find that all contractions on a Hilbert space have simultaneous dilation (here we used the Theorem in the case where is the class of all Hilbert spaces, and ).

The existence of a simultaneous dilation for all contractions on a Hilbert space is only epsilon harder than Sz.-Nagy’s dilation theorem, and is brought just to illustrate. A more interesting example is that positive invertible isometries on are weak-operator dense in the set of all positive contractions, we get that the set of all positive contractions on has simultaneous dilation. The paper doesn’t exhaust all the dilation possibilities that it opens up (I guess that is why it is called a “toolkit”), and the authors suggest that the methods could be used in other situations; for example, maybe it can be used to find -endomorphic dilations to CP maps on C*-algebra.

Two very nice surprises were:

- I learned of an application of N-dilations (see this link overview of the notion in the context of a single or commuting operators on Hilbert spaces). In fact, N-dilations seem to be essential for the proof. The authors prove that a family has simultaneous dilation if and only if it has simultaneous N-dilation for every N (this is similar to a Theorem 1.2 from this paper (in a slightly different setting), but curiously there the easy direction was the direct implication. I wonder if the reverse implication there could also be proved with ultra products…).
- I found references to several earlier work regarding dilations (even N-dilations), unfortunately, a couple of them are in languages that I cannot read. In particular, I learned that the existence of dilations in the context of spaces allows to obtain pointwise ergodic theorems in spaces, as in this paper of Akcoglu and this paper of Akcoglu and Shucheston (I knew that Sz.-Nagy’s unitary dilation quickly reduces the mean ergodic theorem for contractions in to von Neumann’s mean ergodic theorem for unitaries, which is rather basic given the spectral theorem; however, the mean ergodic theorem for contractions in Hilbert spaces has a very elegant proof, it is not much different from von Neumann’s original proof, if I’m not mistaken. Pointwise ergodic theorems are harder, and is the easiest, so this is a far better application, even in the case, than what I was aware of).

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

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 authors 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 time 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)

AND

**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.

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]]>There are two very interesting new submissions:

- “Hyperrigid subsets of graph C*-algebras and the property of rigidity at 0“, by our PhD. student Guy Salomon.
- “On fixed points of self maps of the free ball” by recently-become-ex postdoc Eli Shamovich.

There is also a cross listing (from Spectral Theory) to the paper “Spectral Continuity for Aperiodic Quantum Systems I. General Theory“, by Siegfried Beckus (a postdoc in our department) together with Jean Bellissard and Giuseppe De Nittis.

Finally, there is a new (and final) version of the paper “Compact Group Actions on Topological and Noncommutative Joins” by Benjamin Passer (another postdoc in our department) together with Alexandru Chirvasitu.

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I am not too happy about this review. It is not that it is a negative review – actually it has a rather kind air to it. However, I am somewhat disappointed in the information that the review contains, and I am not sure that it does the reader some service which the potential readers could not achieve by simply reading the table of contents and the preface to the book (it is easy to look inside the book in the Amazon page; of course, it is also easy to find a copy of the book online).

The reviewer correctly notices that one key feature of the book is the treatment of as a completion of , and that this is used for applications in analysis. However, I would love it if a reviewer would point out to the fact that, although the idea of thinking about as a completion space is not new, few (if any) have attempted to actually walk the extra mile and work with in this way (i.e., without requiring measure theory) all the way up to rigorous and significant applications in analysis. Moreover, it would be nice if my attempt was compared to other such attempts (if they exist), and I would like to hear opinions about whether my take is successful.

I am grateful that the reviewer reports on the extensive exercises (this is indeed, in my opinion, one of the pluses of new books in general and my book in particular), but there are a couple of other innovations that are certainly worth remarking on, and I hope that the next reviewer does not miss them. For example, is it a good idea to include a chapter on Hilbert function spaces in an introductory text to FA? (a colleague of mine told me that he would keep that out). Another example: I think that my chapter on applications of compact operators is quite special. This chapter has two halves: one on integral equations and one on functional equations. Now, the subject of integral equations is well trodden and takes a central place in some introductions to FA, and one might wonder whether anything new can be done here in terms of the organization and presentation of the material. So, I think it is worth remarking about whether or not my exposition has anything to add. The half on applications of compact operators to integral equations contains some beautiful and highly non-trivial material that has never appeared in a book before, not to mention that functional equations of any kind are rarely considered in introductions to FA; this may also be worth a comment.

]]>The “Multivariable operator theory workshop at the Technion, on occasion of Baruch Solel’s 65th birthday”, is over. Overall I think it was successful, and I enjoyed meeting old and new friend, and seeing the plan materialize. Everything ran very smoothly – mostly thanks to the Center for Mathematical Sciences and in particular Maya Shpigelman. It was a pleasure to have an occasion to thank Baruch, and I was proud to see my colleagues acknowledge Baruch’s contribution and wish him the best.

If you are curious about the talks, here is the book of abstracts. Most of the presentations can be found at the bottom of the workshop webpage. Here is a bigger version of the photo.

I will not blog about the workshop any further – I don’t feel like I participated as a mathematician. I miss being a regular participant! Luckily I don’t have to wait long: Next week, I am going to Athens to participate in the Sixth Summer School in Operator Theory in Athens.

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