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In Soviet Russia, equations solve you
November 9, 2009 3:36 AM   Subscribe

The strength of post-Soviet math stems from decades of lonely productivity. Russian math.
posted by twoleftfeet (19 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
That headline pun is harsh.

But I will save this explanation for the next time someone asks why the quality of MeFi discussions is so high. Decades of lonely productivity.
posted by rokusan at 3:50 AM on November 9, 2009 [8 favorites]


Wow, that article is just dripping with anti-soviet hysteria.
Decades before, in the Soviet Union, math placed a premium on logic and consistency in a culture that thrived on rhetoric and fear; it required highly specialized knowledge to understand; and, worst of all, mathematics lay claim to singular and knowable truths—when the regime had staked its own legitimacy on its own singular truth. All this made mathematicians suspect.
Oh noes! Commies commies somehow managed to square the circle and keep A=A mathematical truth of free market awesomeness without eschewing mathematics entirely!
Following the war, the Soviets invested heavily in high-tech military research, building over 40 cities where scientists and mathematicians worked in secret. The urgency of the mobilization recalled the Manhattan Project—only much bigger and lasting much longer. Estimates of the number of people engaged in the Soviet arms effort in the second half of the century range up to 12 million people, with a couple million of them employed by military-research institutions.
Compared to our Military Industrial complex?

Not to defend the soviet union, but like every paragraph sounds like it was written by one of Richard Nixon's speechwriters. Apparently the author was born there.

She also glosses over the fact that a Chinese team was getting very close to solving the Poincare Conjecture in a similar way to Perelman. He also collaborated with American mathematicians earlier.
posted by delmoi at 4:04 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


There was actually a great article about the Poncare conjecture in the New Yorker, in fact the article itself has it's own wikipedia article.
posted by delmoi at 4:06 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was actually a great article about the Poncare conjecture in the New Yorker, in fact the article itself has it's own wikipedia article.

Previously on MetaFilter.
posted by clearly at 4:12 AM on November 9, 2009


Perelman's Proof [PDF] of the Poincaré conjecture.

Surely it only makes sense to a handful of people. I admit it is way over my head.
posted by clearly at 4:22 AM on November 9, 2009


From the fabulous English Russia website are some recent photos of Perelman snapped in a St. Petersburg subway.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:12 AM on November 9, 2009


I'm sure the author is right that aspects of the Soviet system have fostered different styles of mathematical development and accomplishment. However, in terms of the American mathematical culture, Masha Gessen is far from knowing what she is talking about. First, she writes "[f]or example, the American model may not be able to produce a breakthrough like the proof of the Poincaré Conjecture." But the "American model" did something very similar, when Andrew Wiles worked in relative secrecy in the period 1986-1993 on his proof of the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture (which yielded Fermat's last theorem as a corollary).

Secondly, Gessen writes that "[i]t's all but impossible to imagine an American institution that could have provided Mr. Perelman with this kind of near-solitary existence, free of teaching and publishing obligations." The single most famous American mathematics research institution, the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, is a counterexample to Gessen's claim. From the IAS website: "[e]ach year about 200 Members come to the Institute where they are given the freedom to work on the attainment of long-term goals without pressure for immediate results. For permanent faculty of the IAS, this means they can take as long as they want to work on whatever they want. Kurt Gödel is a notable example: an IAS faculty member who published essentially nothing from 1946 until his death in 1978.

The Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, in Paris, is another example of a western institution giving its research faculty such absolute academic freedom.
posted by louigi at 6:14 AM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks, that was a good read. I always enjoy Gessen's writing, and having once been a math major, I read this with vicarious nostalgia:

In the mathematical counterculture, math "was almost a hobby," recalls Sergei Gelfand. "So you could spend your time doing things that would not be useful to anyone for the nearest decade." Mathematicians called it "math for math's sake." There was no material reward in this—no tenure, no money, no apartments, no foreign travel; all they stood to gain was the respect of their peers.


That's the kind of math I loved—math for math's sake, with as little direct practical application as possible. The main reason I switched departments (besides realizing I wasn't another Gauss or Ramanujan) was that the math department wanted me to take more and more calculus and fit myself for a career I didn't want.


> Wow, that article is just dripping with anti-soviet hysteria.

What the hell? Your comment is dripping with ill-considered snark, and would better not have been made. In the first place, Masha Gessen grew up in the Soviet Union and moved back to Moscow in 1991; she knows a fuck of a lot more about it than you ever will, and you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking otherwise. I can't imagine the degree of ignorant self-satisfaction it would take to tell someone who lived through Communism that they're hysterical about it.

And in the second place, as nasty a piece of work as Richard Nixon was, the Soviet Union was just as bad as he said it was. I'm sorry if it blows your mind to think that a bad person might not be wrong about everything, but we all have to grow up someday.
posted by languagehat at 6:31 AM on November 9, 2009 [10 favorites]


The strength of post-Soviet math stems from decades of lonely productivity.

This seems to be true in Russian literature as well.
posted by tybeet at 7:26 AM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm with the hat. If some hysteria dripped off this article it's not anti-Soviet, it's anti-academia -- which makes sense, given that this is the 2009 WSJ, not the 1985 WSJ. Yeah, a guy like Vladimir Berkovich can do terrific work between 4 and 6 in the morning before spending his whole day carrying out computations for the mining industry; but Gessen makes it sound like this is preferable to having to attend a faculty committee meeting once in a while. I don't think so; and neither do the vast majority of Russian mathematicians, who now work in the United States, Israel, or Europe.
posted by escabeche at 7:37 AM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I disagree. I think it has to do with dominance over bears. If you have to tame a wild bear just to get to work, what hope does a flimsy equation have against your might?

Of course, this does raise the question of where all the great Australian mathematicians are. Presumably they die at the fangs of dinner-plate sized spiders before they can submit their proofs for academic journals.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:12 AM on November 9, 2009


Of course, this does raise the question of where all the great Australian mathematicians are. Presumably they die at the fangs of dinner-plate sized spiders before they can submit their proofs for academic journals.

I'd say it has to do with climate. The places with the more bitter, disagreeable weather tend to produce greater intellectual feats, because in places with pleasant weather, it's too tempting to put off reading that book/writing that paper/figuring out something that has been puzzling you and instead, lounge around on the beach or have a barbecue.

I once read that the average IQ in Britain is 100 while the average IQ in Australia is 98. This isn't explicable by genetics (both countries are quite diverse, and also have a lot of common ancestry) or diet (if anything, Australia would be more favourable), so the causes must be environmental, or cultura. (though that would be influenced by the environment).
posted by acb at 8:20 AM on November 9, 2009


Of course, this does raise the question of where all the great Australian mathematicians are.

Not in Australia. Like the Russians, they work in the United States academic community, which -- despite Gessen's romanticization of "lonely productivity" -- has built the greatest theorem-proving industry in the history of mankind. Here's Terry Tao, an Australian and a Fields Medalist, on some of the structural problems facing math in Australia.

He teaches at UCLA.
posted by escabeche at 8:28 AM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


acb: I'd say it has to do with climate. The places with the more bitter, disagreeable weather tend to produce greater intellectual feats, because in places with pleasant weather, it's too tempting to put off reading that book/writing that paper/figuring out something that has been puzzling you and instead, lounge around on the beach or have a barbecue.

Utter, total nonsense, as a cursory glance at the intellectual history of India, to take but one example, will make clear.
posted by Kattullus at 8:54 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, that article is just dripping with anti-soviet hysteria.

I dunno. You happen to hear the Russian President recently? [full transcript]

It is impossible to grasp the sheer scale of terror that swept across the country, peaking in 1937 and 1938. "The Volga of people's grief" was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's term for the endless flow of repression victims at that time. Over the 20 pre-war years, whole sectors and classes of our nation were exterminated. Cossacks were practically liquidated. The peasantry was dispossessed and depleted. Political repressions swept across intelligentsia, workers, and the military. Followers of all religious confessions were prosecuted.

October the 30th is the Day of remembrance for millions of ruined lives. For people executed without trial or record; for people exiled and sent to concentration camps, deprived of civil rights for having the "wrong" occupation or the infamous "social origins". The label of "enemies of the nation" and their "abettors" was applied to entire families.

Let's just think about it: millions of people died because of terror and false accusation. They were deprived of all rights, even the right for humane burial. For many years, their names were simply crossed out of history....

We need museums and memorial centres that will pass the memory of what our nation has been through from generation to generation. No doubt, efforts should be carried on to find mass burials, identify the remains and rehabilitate the victims....

Nobody but us can preserve historical memory and pass it on to new generations.

posted by dhartung at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sort of reminds me of all the Soviet Computer Science articles presenting techniques developed without using any actual computers. I was told there was a time when a computer science department at a university might have only a few smuggled processors taken out of arcade video games.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:34 AM on November 9, 2009


I was told there was a time when a computer science department at a university might have only a few smuggled processors taken out of arcade video games.

IIRC, the Soviets did a roaring trade of reverse-engineering and cloning Western computers, to the point that DEC actually inscribed one of their processors (from a VAX or PDP, I think) with tiny Cyrillic letters reading "for those who care enough to steal the very best".

That's not to say that they didn't develop any original computers in the USSR; I recall reading about a Soviet computer that used Base -2 (rather than Base 2) for its arithmetic; this was cited as "security through obscurity" to confuse CIA hackers.
posted by acb at 10:51 AM on November 9, 2009


In the first place, Masha Gessen grew up in the Soviet Union and moved back to Moscow in 1991;

You should really read the entire comment before replying. I pointed out that she was from the Soviet Union in my post. And I also said I was not "defending" it. Just because something is bad doesn't mean that you have to point out how bad it is in every. Single. Paragraph.

I recall reading about a Soviet computer that used Base -2 (rather than Base 2) for its arithmetic

That makes no sense whatsoever.
posted by delmoi at 10:06 AM on November 10, 2009


Negative bases are possible. (Though not terribly common.)
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:17 PM on November 10, 2009


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