A revisit of the drama behind the Poincaré

I recall back in 2008, when I first cared enough to learn about mathematicians, I read a fair bit of the media articles on the proof of the Poincaré conjecture. At that time, I was clueless about math, and these mathematicians seemed to me like these otherworldly geniuses. I do remember thinking once to myself that maybe it would be kind of cool to part of that world. Except at that time, I was way too dumb, and maybe I still am. However, now I actually have some idea of what math research is about, unlike back then, when my conception of math and mathematicians was more of a naive popular one.

Naturally, from that I learned about Shing-Tung Yau. I probably read that Manifold Destiny article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber that Yau was furious with, in response to which he hired a lawyer and had a PR site created for him to counter the libel (as perceived by him). That was pretty entertaining to read about.

The more I learned about math, about mathematicians, about how the world works, about the Chinese math establishment, and about Chinese language (which I’m pretty fluent with by now), the more accurately and deeply I could understand and thus appreciate all this. In particular, now that I know a little about Riemann surfaces, I feel closer to that rarefied world. I also read a fair bit in Chinese about that feud between Yau and Tian, which was also quite entertaining. If some of that stuff is actually true, then academia, even in its supposedly purest, hardest, and more meritocratic subject, is kind of fucked up.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with a Harvard math undergrad who is also an IMO gold medalist. And we both mentioned Yau. 😉

What can I say about all the politics and fight for credit over whole Poincaré conjecture? Surely, it was kind of nasty. It’s fair to say that Yau was pissed (or at least disappointed) that his school (of Chinese mathematicians) lost to this lone Russian Jew. Maybe in some years time, I’ll be able to judge for myself, but for now, it seems like Perelman’s proof was correct from the start and that what Cao and Zhu, along with the other two teams of two did were merely verification and exposition of Perelman’s result. Of course, attributing a proof entirely to an individual is somewhat misleading, because anyone who knows how math works knows that any proof of a big theorem employs sophisticated machinery and theory developed by predecessors. I’ve studied enough math now to recognize to some degree the actual substance, that is, what is genuinely original, versus what is merely derivative. In the case of Perelman, they say he was using the Ricci flow developed by Hamilton. I’ve encountered many times that in learning, it is much harder to learn about a topic I have little exposure to vastly different from anything I’ve seen before than to learn what is structurally similar (albeit different in its presentation and perhaps also level of generality) to something I had thought about deeply myself already, or at least seen.

Aside from the Poincaré, the focus of that New Yorker article, the authors of it also made it seem as if Lian, Liu, and Yau stole Givental’s proof of mirror symmetry as well about a decade earlier. After all, Givental published first. I suspected that might have been the case. The narrative even made it seem somewhat like Givental was this super genius whose arguments were somewhat beyond the comprehension of Lian, Liu, and Yau, who struggled to replicate his work. Maybe because I still see, or at least saw, Jews as deeper and more original than Chinese are. Again, I still know too little, but it does seem like Jews have contributed much more to math at the high end even in recent years, say, the past three decades.

Well, I found a writing on that doctoryau website by Bong Lian and Kefeng Liu documenting the flaws and deficiencies in Givental’s paper. It looked pretty thorough and detailed, with many objections. The most memorable one was

p18: Proposition 7.1. There was just one sentence in the proof. “It can be obtained by a straightforward calculation quite analogous to that in ‘[2]’.” Here ‘[2]’ was a 228-page long paper of Dubrovin.

And I checked that that was indeed true in Givental’s paper. This certainly discredited Givental much in my eyes. It’s like: how the fuck do you prove a proposition by saying it’s a straightforward calculation analogous to one in… a 228-page paper!!!!!!!!

Not just that. There is also

p27: Proposition 9.6. In the middle of its proof, a sentence read “It is a half of the geometrical argument mentioned above.” It’s not clear what this was referring to (above where? which half?)

and

p30: Proposition 9.9. This was about certain uniqueness property of the recursion relations. The proof was half a sentence “Now it is easy to check” But, again since we couldn’t check, it’s hard to tell if it was easy or not

So basically at least three times Givental proves with “it’s trivial,” once based on analogy with a 228-page paper.

There are far from all. There are many more instances of Givental’s arguing what Lian-Liu-Yau could not follow, according to that document, the list in which is also, according to its authors, who advise strongly the reader to “examine Givental’s paper make an informed judgment for himself”, “not meant to be exhaustive.” So they’ve listed 11 gaps in that paper, one of which is glaringly obvious of a rather ridiculous nature even to one who knows not the slightest about mathematics! And they suggest there is more that, to my guess, may be much more minor that they omitted in that document so as to avoid dilution.

I’ve noticed it’s often the Chinese scientists who have a bad reputation for plagiarism, made more believable by the dearth of first-rate science out of Chinese scientists in China, though that seems to be changing lately. On the latter, many Chinese are quite embarrassed about their not having won a homegrown Nobel Prize (until Tu Youyou in 2015 for what seemed to be more of a trial-and-error, as opposed to creative, discovery) or Fields Medal. On the other hand, I’ve also heard some suspicions that it’s the Jews who are nepotistic with regard to tenure decisions and prize lobbying in science, and what Givental did in that paper surely does not reflect well. I used to think that math and theoretical physics, unlike the easier and more collaborative fields in STEM (with many working in a lab or on an engineering project), revere almost exclusively individual genius and brilliance, but it turns out that to succeed nowadays typically involves recommendations from some super famous person, at Connes attests to here (on page 32), not surprising once one considers the sheer scarcity of positions. Now I can better understand why Grothendieck was so turned off by the mathematical community, where according to him, the ethics have “declined to the point that outright theft among colleagues (especially at the expenses of those who are in no position to defend themselves) has nearly become a general rule.” More reason why I still hesitate to go all out on a career in mathematics. It can get pretty nasty for a career with low pay and probability of job security, and I could with my talents make much more impact elsewhere. One could even say that unequivocally, one who can drastically increase the number of quality math research positions (not ridden with too many hours of consuming duties not related to the research) would do more to progress mathematics than any individual genius.

I’ll conclude with some thoughts of mine on this Olympiad math that I’ve lost interest in that many mathematicians express low opinion of, though it clearly has value as a method of talent encouragement and selection at the early stage, with many Fields Medalists having been IMO medalists, usually gold. I recall Yau had criticized the system of Olympiad math in China, where making its version of MOSP gives one a free ticket to Beida and Qinghua, as a consequence of which many parents force or at least pressure their kids into Olympiad math prep courses as early as elementary school. Even there, several of the IMO gold medalists have become distinguished mathematicians. I have in mind Zhiwei Yun, Xinyi Yuan, and Xuhua He, all speakers at this year’s ICM. So the predictive power of IMO holds for the Chinese just as well as for the non-Chinese. I personally believe that Olympiad math is beneficial for technical training, though surely, the actual mathematical content in it is not that inspiring or even ugly to one who knows some real math, though for many gifted high schoolers, it’s probably the most exciting stuff they’ve seen. I do think though that one seriously interested in mathematics would have nothing to lose from ignoring that stuff if one goes about the actual math the right way.

It’s kind of funny. A few days ago when I brought up on a chat group full of MOSP/IMO alumni that now, almost half of the top 100 on the Putnam (HM and higher) are Chinese, one math PhD quite critical of math contests was like: “ST Yau would weep.” Well, I don’t think ST Yau actually regards Olympiad math as a bad thing (half tongue-in-cheek, I even remarked on that chat that doing math contests (as a high schooler) is much better than doing drugs). Many of the Olympiad/Putnam high scorers do quite well, and in some cases spectacularly so, in math research. One point I shall make about them is that they are, unlike research, a 100% fair contest. Moreover, the Putnam, which I placed a modest top 500 on, solving three problems, has problems which do not require specialized technical training as do the inequalities and synthetic geometry problems in Olympiad math that have elegant solutions. On that, I have wondered based on their current dominance of those contests: could it be that at the far tail, the Chinese (who did not actually create the scientific tradition themselves) are actually smarter than the others, including the Jews? Could it be that the Chinese are actually somewhat disadvantaged job placement and recognition wise in math academia out of a relative lack of connections and also cultural bias? What I saw in that sound and unobjectionable rebuttal of Givental’s paper, in contrast to what was presented in the media, only makes this hypothesis more plausible. I am not denying that Givental did not make a critical contribution to the proof of mirror symmetry. That he did, along with some other predecessors, seems to be well acknowledged in the series of papers by Lian-Liu-Yau later that actually gave the first rigorous, complete proof of mirror symmetry. Idea wise, I read that Lian-Liu-Yau did something significant with so called Euler data, and though not qualified to judge myself, I have every reason to believe that to be the case for now.

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