Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. I happen to be a frog, but many of my best friends are birds. The main theme of my talk tonight is this. Mathematics needs both birds and frogs. Mathematics is rich and beautiful because birds give it broad visions and frogs give it intricate details. Mathematics is both great art and important science, because it combines generality of concepts with depth of structures. It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper. The world of mathematics is both broad and deep, and we need birds and frogs working together to explore it.
This talk is called the Einstein lecture, and I am grateful to the American Mathematical Society for inviting me to do honor to Albert Einstein. Einstein was not a mathematician, but a physicist who had mixed feelings about mathematics. On the one hand, he had enormous respect for the power of mathematics to describe the workings of nature, and he had an instinct for mathematical beauty which led him onto the right track to find nature’s laws. On the other hand, he had no interest in pure mathematics, and he had no technical skill as a mathematician. In his later years he hired younger colleagues with the title of assistants to do mathematical calculations for him. His way of thinking was physical rather than mathematical. He was supreme among physicists as a bird who saw further than others. I will not talk about Einstein skill as a mathematician. In his later years he hired younger colleagues with the title of assistants to do mathematical calculations for him. His way of thinking was physical rather than mathematical. He was supreme among physicists as a bird who saw further than others. I will not talk about Einstein since I have nothing new to say.
Francis Bacon and René Descartes
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, two great philosophers, Francis Bacon in England and René Descartes in France, proclaimed the birth of modern science. Descartes was a bird, and Bacon was a frog. Each of them described his vision of the future. Their visions were very different. Bacon said, “All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature.” Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” According to Bacon, scientists should travel over the earth collecting facts, until the accumulated facts reveal how Nature works. The scientists will then induce from the facts the laws that Nature obeys. According to Descartes, scientists should stay at home and deduce the laws of Nature by pure thought. In order to deduce the laws correctly, the scientists will need only the rules of logic and knowledge of the existence of God. For four hundred years since Bacon and Descartes led the way, science has raced ahead by following both paths simultaneously. Neither Baconian empiricism nor Cartesian dogmatism has the power to elucidate Nature’s secrets by itself, but both together have been amazingly successful. For four hundred years English scientists have tended to be Baconian and French scientists Cartesian. Faraday and Darwin and Rutherford were Baconians; Pascal and Laplace and Poincaré were Cartesians. Science was greatly enriched by the cross-fertilization of the two contrasting cultures. Both cultures were always at work in both countries. Newton was at heart a Cartesian, using pure thought as Descartes intended, and using it to demolish the Cartesian dogma of vortices. Marie Curie was at heart a Baconian, boiling tons of crude uranium ore to demolish the dogma of the indestructibility of atoms.
In the history of twentieth century mathematics, there were two decisive events, one belonging to the Baconian tradition and the other to the Cartesian tradition. The first was the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900, at which Hilbert gave the keynote address, charting the course of mathematics for the coming century by propounding his famous list of twenty-three outstanding unsolved problems. Hilbert himself was a bird, flying high over the whole territory of mathematics, but he addressed his problems to the frogs who would solve them one at a time. The second decisive event was the formation of the Bourbaki group of mathematical birds in France in the 1930s, dedicated to publishing a series of textbooks that would establish a unifying framework for all of mathematics. The Hilbert problems were enormously successful in guiding mathematical research into fruitful directions. Some of them were solved and some remain unsolved, but almost all of them stimulated the growth of new ideas and new fields of mathematics. The Bourbaki project was equally influential. It changed the style of mathematics for the next fifty years, imposing a logical coherence that did not exist before, and moving the emphasis from concrete examples to abstract generalities. In the Bourbaki scheme of things, mathematics is the abstract structure included in the Bourbaki textbooks. What is not in the textbooks is not mathematics. Concrete examples, since they do not appear in the textbooks, are not mathematics. The Bourbaki program was the extreme expression of the Cartesian style. It narrowed the scope of mathematics by excluding the beautiful flowers that Baconian travelers might collect by the wayside.
Jokes of Nature
For me, as a Baconian, the main thing missing in the Bourbaki program is the element of surprise. The Bourbaki program tried to make mathematics logical. When I look at the history of mathematics, I see a succession of illogical jumps, improbable coincidences, jokes of nature. One of the most profound jokes of nature is the square root of minus one that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger put into his wave equation when he invented wave mechanics in 1926. Schrödinger was a bird who started from the idea of unifying mechanics with optics. A hundred years earlier, Hamilton had unified classical mechanics with ray optics, using the same mathematics to describe optical rays and classical particle trajectories. Schrödinger’s idea was to extend this unification to wave optics and wave mechanics. Wave optics already existed, but wave mechanics did not. Schrödinger had to invent wave mechanics to complete the unification. Starting from wave optics as a model, he wrote down a differential equation for a mechanical particle, but the equation made no sense. The equation looked like the equation of conduction of heat in a continuous medium. Heat conduction has no visible relevance to particle mechanics. Schrödinger’s idea seemed to be going nowhere. But then came the surprise. Schrödinger put the square root of minus one into the equation, and suddenly it made sense. Suddenly it became a wave equation instead of a heat conduction equation. And Schrödinger found to his delight that the equation has solutions corresponding to the quantized orbits in the Bohr model of the atom.
It turns out that the Schrödinger equation describes correctly everything we know about the behavior of atoms. It is the basis of all of chemistry and most of physics. And that square root of minus one means that nature works with complex numbers and not with real numbers. This discovery came as a complete surprise, to Schrödinger as well as to everybody else. According to Schrödinger, his fourteen-year-old girl friend Itha Junger said to him at the time, “Hey, you never even thought when you began that so much sensible stuff would come out of it.” All through the nineteenth century, mathematicians from Abel to Riemann and Weierstrass had been creating a magnificent theory of functions of complex variables. They had discovered that the theory of functions became far deeper and more powerful when it was extended from real to complex numbers. But they always thought of complex numbers as an artificial construction, invented by human mathematicians as a useful and elegant abstraction from real life. It never entered their heads that this artificial number system that they had invented was in fact the ground on which atoms move. They never imagined that nature had got there first.
Another joke of nature is the precise linearity of quantum mechanics, the fact that the possible states of any physical object form a linear space. Before quantum mechanics was invented, classical physics was always nonlinear, and linear models were only approximately valid. After quantum mechanics, nature itself suddenly became linear. This had profound consequences for mathematics. During the nineteenth century Sophus Lie developed his elaborate theory of continuous groups, intended to clarify the behavior of classical dynamical systems. Lie groups were then of little interest either to mathematicians or to physicists. The nonlinear theory of Lie groups was too complicated for the mathematicians and too obscure for the physicists. Lie died a disappointed man. And then, fifty years later, it turned out that nature was precisely linear, and the theory of linear representations of Lie algebras was the natural language of particle physics. Lie groups and Lie algebras were reborn as one of the central themes of twentieth century mathematics.
A third joke of nature is the existence of quasicrystals. In the nineteenth century the study of crystals led to a complete enumeration of possible discrete symmetry groups in Euclidean space. Theorems were proved, establishing the fact that in three-dimensional space discrete symmetry groups could contain only rotations of order three, four, or six. Then in 1984 quasi-crystals were discovered, real solid objects growing out of liquid metal alloys, showing the symmetry of the icosahedral group, which includes five-fold rotations. Meanwhile, the mathematician Roger Penrose discovered the Penrose tilings of the plane. These are arrangements of parallelograms that cover a plane with pentagonal long-range order. The alloy quasi-crystals are three-dimensional analogs of the two-dimensional Penrose tilings. After these discoveries, mathematicians had to enlarge the theory of crystallographic groups to include quasicrystals. That is a major program of research which is still in progress.
A fourth joke of nature is a similarity in behavior between quasi-crystals and the zeros of the Riemann Zeta function. The zeros of the zetafunction are exciting to mathematicians because they are found to lie on a straight line and nobody understands why. The statement that with trivial exceptions they all lie on a straight line is the famous Riemann Hypothesis. To prove the Riemann Hypothesis has been the dream of young mathematicians for more than a hundred years. I am now making the outrageous suggestion that we might use quasi-crystals to prove the Riemann Hypothesis. Those of you who are mathematicians may consider the suggestion frivolous. Those who are not mathematicians may consider it uninteresting. Nevertheless I am putting it forward for your serious consideration. When the physicist Leo Szilard was young, he became dissatisfied with the ten commandments of Moses and wrote a new set of ten commandments to replace them. Szilard’s second commandment says: “Let your acts be directed towards a worthy goal, but do not ask if they can reach it: they are to be models and examples, not means to an end.” Szilard practiced what he preached. He was the first physicist to imagine nuclear weapons and the first to campaign actively against their use. His second commandment certainly applies here. The proof of the Riemann Hypothesis is a worthy goal, and it is not for us to ask whether we can reach it. I will give you some hints describing how it might be achieved. Here I will be giving voice to the mathematician that I was fifty years ago before I became a physicist. I will talk first about the Riemann Hypothesis and then about quasi-crystals.
There were until recently two supreme unsolved problems in the world of pure mathematics, the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and the proof of the Riemann Hypothesis. Twelve years ago, my Princeton colleague Andrew Wiles polished off Fermat’s Last Theorem, and only the Riemann Hypothesis remains. Wiles’ proof of the Fermat Theorem was not just a technical stunt. It required the discovery and exploration of a new field of mathematical ideas, far wider and more consequential than the Fermat Theorem itself. It is likely that any proof of the Riemann Hypothesis will likewise lead to a deeper understanding of many diverse areas of mathematics and perhaps of physics too. Riemann’s zeta-function, and other zeta-functions similar to it, appear ubiquitously in number theory, in the theory of dynamical systems, in geometry, in function theory, and in physics. The zeta-function stands at a junction where paths lead in many directions. A proof of the hypothesis will illuminate all the connections. Like every serious student of pure mathematics, when I was young I had dreams of proving the Riemann Hypothesis. I had some vague ideas that I thought might lead to a proof. In recent years, after the discovery of quasi-crystals, my ideas became a little less vague. I offer them here for the consideration of any young mathematician who has ambitions to win a Fields Medal. Quasi-crystals can exist in spaces of one, two, or three dimensions. From the point of view of physics, the three-dimensional quasi-crystals are the most interesting, since they inhabit our threedimensional world and can be studied experimentally. From the point of view of a mathematician, one-dimensional quasi-crystals are much more interesting than two-dimensional or threedimensional quasi-crystals because they exist in far greater variety. The mathematical definition of a quasi-crystal is as follows.
A quasi-crystal is a distribution of discrete point masses whose Fourier transform is a distribution of discrete point frequencies. Or to say it more briefly, a quasi-crystal is a pure point distribution that has a pure point spectrum. This definition includes as a special case the ordinary crystals, which are periodic distributions with periodic spectra.
Excluding the ordinary crystals, quasi-crystals in three dimensions come in very limited variety, all of them associated with the icosahedral group. The two-dimensional quasicrystals are more numerous, roughly one distinct type associated with each regular polygon in a plane. The twodimensional quasi-crystal with pentagonal symmetry is the famous Penrose tiling of the plane. Finally, the onedimensional quasi-crystals have a far richer structure since they are not tied to any rotational symmetries. So far as I know, no complete enumeration of one-dimensional quasi-crystals exists. It is known that a unique quasi-crystal exists corresponding to every Pisot-Vijayaraghavan number or PV number. A PV number is a real algebraic integer, a root of a polynomial equation with integer coefficients, such that all the other roots have absolute value less than one, . The set of all PV numbers is infinite and has a remarkable topological structure. The set of all one-dimensional quasi-crystals has a structure at least as rich as the set of all PV numbers and probably much richer. We do not know for sure, but it is likely that a huge universe of one-dimensional quasi-crystals not associated with PV numbers is waiting to be discovered.
Here comes the connection of the onedimensional quasi-crystals with the Riemann hypothesis. If the Riemann hypothesis is true, then the zeros of the zeta-function form a onedimensional quasi-crystal according to the definition. They constitute a distribution of point masses on a straight line, and their Fourier transform is likewise a distribution of point masses, one at each of the logarithms of ordinary prime numbers and prime-power numbers. My friend Andrew Odlyzko has published a beautiful computer calculation of the Fourier transform of the zeta-function zeros, . The calculation shows precisely the expected structure of the Fourier transform, with a sharp discontinuity at every logarithm of a prime or prime-power number and nowhere else.
My suggestion is the following. Let us pretend that we do not know that the Riemann Hypothesis is true. Let us tackle the problem from the other end. Let us try to obtain a complete enumeration and classification of one-dimensional quasicrystals. That is to say, we enumerate and classify all point distributions that have a discrete point spectrum. Collecting and classifying new species of objects is a quintessentially Baconian activity. It is an appropriate activity for mathematical frogs. We shall then find the well-known quasi-crystals associated with PV numbers, and also a whole universe of other quasicrystals, known and unknown. Among the multitude of other quasi-crystals we search for one corresponding to the Riemann zeta-function and one corresponding to each of the other zeta-functions that resemble the Riemann zeta-function. Suppose that we find one of the quasi-crystals in our enumeration with properties that identify it with the zeros of the Riemann zeta-function. Then we have proved the Riemann Hypothesis and we can wait for the telephone call announcing the award of the Fields Medal.
These are of course idle dreams. The problem of classifying onedimensional quasi-crystals is horrendously difficult, probably at least as difficult as the problems that Andrew Wiles took seven years to explore. But if we take a Baconian point of view, the history of mathematics is a history of horrendously difficult problems being solved by young people too ignorant to know that they were impossible. The classification of quasi-crystals is a worthy goal, and might even turn out to be achievable. Problems of that degree of difficulty will not be solved by old men like me. I leave this problem as an exercise for the young frogs in the audience.
Adapted from NOTICES OF AMS 2/2009