Monday, August 16, 2010

Weeknote #14 (w/e 15/8/10)

The big news this week centred on rumours of a resolution to the "P=NP?" question. Although this issue might seem, at first, to be of purely theoretical interest, it has immense "real-world" significance. As one of the Millennium Problems, it also carries a million dollar bounty, although no serious mathematician would ever admit to being motivated by the money....

(Simpsons still taken from the Treehouse of Horror VI episode.)

Others are far more qualified to discuss the details of the proof than I'll ever be, but I do I feel able to comment on some of the ludicrous media coverage surrounding the story. A prime example is here, where the BBC uses the headline "Million dollar maths puzzle sparks row". Ok, maybe the journalist who wrote the piece didn't actually choose the headline, but phrasing the normal operation of science in terms of "But maths experts have weighed in to point out flaws in his proof" isn't particularly useful (or, indeed, helpful). The whole point of publishing a proof is to expose it to scrutiny. In discussing the story, Richard Lipton quotes the renowned mathematician Yuri Manin as saying that

"A proof only becomes a proof after the social act of accepting it as a proof."

In other news, I appear to have annoyed Diane Abbott MP (or, at least, one of her team) by commenting on her remark that the other candidates for the Labour leadership appear to be "geeky young men in suits".

When the original remark was highlighted in a subsequent BBC news story, I tweeted a question to her, which very quickly provoked a denial. I'm automatically offended by the implication that "geek" is somehow perjorative, but Alex Ross does a nice job of explaining a rather more fundamental objection to Abbot's attitude towards the other candidates.

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