Andy's Math/CS page

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Random bits

This morning I was delighted to learn that Alan Baker, the Swarthmore professor whose Philosophy of Science class I took senior year, recently won the US Shogi championships--read his account here. Congrats, Prof. Baker!
I never learned Shogi, although Go--another Asian board game--was a big part of my youth and probably a decisive factor in my eventual interest in math/CS.

In other news, I am coauthor on a paper, 'The Power of Unentanglement', recently released on ECCC (and headed for CCC '08), jointly with Scott Aaronson, Salman Beigi, Bill Fefferman, and Peter Shor. It's about multiple-prover, single-round, quantum interactive proofs, and I encourage those whose cup of tea that is to take a look.

This is my first appearance in a conference paper, but not quite my first time in print--it happened once before, by accident. As a freshman in college, I asked my Linear Algebra professor, Steven Maurer, a question on an online class discussion board. Here it is, in the breathless and overwrought prose of my teenage years:

"This question has been haunting me, and I know I shouldn't expect definite answers. But how do mathematicians know when a theory is more or less done? Is it when they've reached a systematic classification theorem or a computational method for the objects they were looking for? Do they typically begin with ambitions as to the capabilities they'd like to achieve? I suppose there's nuanced interaction here, for instance, in seeking theoretical comprehension of vector spaces we find that these spaces can be characterized by possibly finite 'basis' sets. Does this lead us to want to construct algorithmically these new ensembles whose existence we weren't aware of to begin with? Or, pessimistically, do the results just start petering out, either because the 'interesting' ones are exhausted or because as we push out into theorem-space it becomes too wild and wooly to reward our efforts? Are there more compelling things to discover about vector spaces in general, or do we need to start scrutinizing specific vector spaces for neat quirks--or introduce additional structure into our axioms (or definitions): dot products, angles, magnitudes, etc.?

Also, how strong or detailed is the typical mathematician's sense of the openness or settledness of the various theories? And is there an alternative hypothesis I'm missing? "

Steve gave a thoughtful reply, years passed, and then a similar topic came up in coversation between himself and the mathematician and popular math writer Philip J. Davis. The conversation sparked an essay by Davis in which he quoted Maurer and I (with permission), the essay recently became part of a philosophy-of-math book ('Mathematics and Common Sense: A Case of Creative Tension'), and I got mailed a free copy--sweet! Once again, I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys that kind of thing. The essay is online.



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