Jim Holt

Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
Nov. 28 2000 12:00 AM

Jim Holt


Being at MSRI is a bit like going to heaven without all the bother and expense of dying. I don't mean the sort of heaven where you wear ermine and eat foie gras to the sound of trumpets. I mean the sort where you spend your days languidly communing with beautiful, timeless, abstract ideas: Platonic heaven.


MSRI stands for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. It is the premier think tank in the world for pure mathematics. Even its location is heavenly: It is housed in a Corbusian glass-and-wood structure perched atop the loftiest of the hills above the University of California at Berkeley, just below the ionosphere. From my office window, I gaze down upon the skyscrapers of San Francisco, the isle of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Ocean. In a few minutes I will leave my office, traverse some pristine white hallways, and join a hundred of the most eminent mathematicians from around the world in a commodious lecture room. Today's topic for contemplation: the linear p-adic group, the p-adic Galois group, and the p-affine Schur algebra.

But wait. I am not a mathematician (although I have sometimes pretended to be one on NPR). I am a "trivial being," to use Paul Erdos' term for those who are not among the mathematical elect. So what am I doing in this Platonic heaven? I am here as a journalist in residence. My mandate is to convey a little of the flavor of what goes on in these ethereal precincts to my fellow trivial beings back in the material world. I also cannot help thinking of myself as an anthropologist, living among an alien tribe and observing their often strange folkways. I must be careful not to give them measles.

How can I blend into this august tribe? As a longtime mathematical dilettante, I sometimes understand a little of what they are saying. I also do a good bit of faking. Luckily I have come up with a set of all-purpose trick questions that have kept my ignorance from being exposed in many a treacherous conversation. For example:

"Can that result be restated in terms of category theory?" (Category theory is a ridiculously abstract framework that takes all the meaning out of mathematics.)

"Isn't the constant in that equation suspiciously close to the square root of pi divided by e cubed?"

"Wasn't your theorem prefigured in the work of Euler?" (Leonhard Euler, who lived in the 18th century, was the most prolific mathematician in history; nearly everything is prefigured in his work.)

"But can you prove that lemma for the case of n=3?"

By the shrewd use of such feints, I, a trivial being, have been able to chat as an apparent peer with many of my colleagues at MSRI. Above all, I am careful not to let conversations about things like p-adic Galois groups go on for too long. When skating over thin ice, speed is your ally.