Swiss French, Swiss German

Ferdinand de Saussure was a profound linguistic thinker of the early 1900s. During a legendary series of lectures given at University of Geneva, de Saussure, a French-speaking Swiss, introduced to the world many ideas which have since become fundamental — even “self-evident” — within the discipline of linguistics. De Saussure suggested, for example, that the historical and etymological emphases of his day failed to recognize as the central object of linguistics the instantaneous internal structure of a language, to which prior evolutionary contingencies are irrelevant. A language’s internal structure, in fact, exists moreover independently of the writing system it uses, of the concrete sounds of its phonetic system, and even of its words. It consists entirely, de Saussure argued, of an abstract system of so-called signs — each linking an idea to a sound — which subsist only through the network of relationships among them and persist only through the coordinated ativity of a linguistic community. “It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition,” de Saussure famously wrote, “and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary.” [1, p. 74]

De Saussure’s facility with historical linguistics was, to his credit, uncanny. Discussing the unfortunate common tendency to confuse historical (diachronic) with instantaneous (synchronic) linguistics, for example, he writes:

In order to explain Greek phuktós, it might be supposed that it suffices to point out that in Greek g and kh become k before a voiceless consonant, and to state this fact in terms of synchronic correspondences such as phugeînphuktóslékhosléktron, etc. But then we come up against cases like tríkhesthriksí, where a complication occurs in the form of a ‘change’ from t to th… [1, p. 96]

De Saussure proceeds like this effortlessly, citing detailed examples variously from Sanskrit [1, p. 2], Latin [1, p. 95], Old High German [1, p. 83], Anglo-Saxon [1, p. 83], early Slavonic [1, p. 86], and, of course, French [1, pp. 31, 69, 85, 95, 104, 106, …].

De Saussure’s true genius, however, was evident perhaps most of all in his novel theory of signs, which emphasized the social, conventional, and ultimately arbitrary nature of linguistic systems — and which eventually produced the field of semiotics.

This theory was validated during my recent trip to Switzerland. Continue reading

The Philosopher

“I know dusk / And dawn, rising like a multitude of doves. / What men have only thought they’d seen, I’ve seen,” [1, p. 89] writes the late-1800s French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in a quote elevated by his latest translators, Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, to their edition’s back cover.

It is telling that Harding and Sturrock choose this quote. These scholars characterize Rimbaud’s style as one infused by “a disordering of all the senses” (Rimbaud’s words) “often with the aid of alcohol and drugs” (their words). Rimbaud was only 15 when he abandoned his native Charleville for Paris, where he was arrested for not paying his train fare. By 17, he had been taken in more stably by Paul Verlaine, a young leader of Paris’ so-called Parnassian school of poets, whose wife and in-laws Rimbaud then taunted by demanding the removal of a picture from one of their walls and by “vandalizing an ivory Christ” [1, p. xxv], and, later, through the developing homosexuality of his relationship with Verlaine. Under the protection of another poet, Théodore de Banville, Rimbaud allegedly “slept in his boots, smashed the china and sold the furniture” [1, p. xxvi], and also stripped in front of an open window and threw his clothes onto the roof. Rimbaud later joined the avant-garde Zutistes’ circle, who “convened for regular drinking sessions in a hotel overlooking the Boulevard St Michel” [1, pp. xxvi-xxvii]. By 21, famously, Rimbaud had abandoned poetry forever, travelling around Europe and eventually settling as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at 37.

Rimbaud’s “disordering”, Harding and Sturrock write, was most of all one of the self itself, which in his poetry “is wilfully distended and distressed, offering the maximum surface area to which unusual information… can adhere” [1, p. xxiv].

rimbaud_ad

This “meme” used to be visible in the library’s basement floor outside the darkened, locked door of a graduate student carrell.

Just how Rimbaud’s poetry achieves its striking character is perhaps too subtle to write down. Surprising insight, though, might be gained through the eliminative materialist ideas of the modern philosopher Paul Churchland. Continue reading

A Mathematical Daydream

This article is part of a series on Complex Algebraic Geometry. See also:
1. The Hardest Conjecture; 2. The Valley; 3. A Mathematical Daydream

“Those limits in certain functor categories that cannot be computed pointwise? They don’t actually exist,” one of us declared authoritatively. We, all math grad students, sat on an apartment floor, in a circle, with cards scattered over the floor.

Blank looks abounded. “Meaning, there don’t actually exist monic natural transformations some of whose components are not monomorphisms,” he clarified.

We had invented a variant of a popular card game called “spies vs. revolutionaries” – we called it “students vs. professors” – in which, in particular, each new round was heralded by its leader’s presentation of an established mathematical truth that he or she had decided we were to overturn for good. “The Banach-Tarski paradox is still true, but requires using at best six pieces, not five,” another student later suggested. “2 isn’t actually a prime,” one student blustered, citing the integer’s pathological character in many number-theoretic environments.

Soon it was my turn. “The Hodge Conjecture is false,” I fibbed, “and a counter-example is provided in my paper.”

A good laugh and a general readiness to proceed with the game cut my monologue short. Ridiculous as it was, though, I was ready to continue. The matter was one to which I had given some thought. Indeed, my work presents an interesting testing ground for a few of the ideas surrounding the Hodge Conjecture, and in particular seems to invite a heuristic argument whereby it could be used to furnish a counter-example to the conjecture. I’ll explain this mathematical daydream, and how it can be ultimately debunked. Continue reading

The Valley

This article is part of a series on Complex Algebraic Geometry. See also:
1. The Hardest Conjecture; 2. The Valley; 3. A Mathematical Daydream

“I see a massive valley before me. The only question is… Should I cross it?”

This is how, about three years ago, and living in Moscow, I posed to a friend the dilemma of whether I should attend graduate school for math.

The analogy held up well. I often envisioned my progress through the program in terms of the same imposing valley. “The brambles are getting so thick, at this depth, that the light which once flowed liberally from the surface is becoming damp and attenuated,” I once thought, as I entered the later stages of the notorious first-year program in algebra and analysis. “I’m so far from charted land that I’m encountering species wholly unknown to the outside world,” I thought later, during my second year – as I first began to encounter Hodge Theory – envisioning passing into a dark forest where marvelous, strange creatures chirped and glowed.

Once in while I’d perceive myself on an unexpected trail towards a promising discovery. “It’s as if I’ve glimpsed light on the other side much earlier than I had anticipated,” I’d think.

The analogy seems to have lost some of its power now. I’ve made my way to the other side, sure. But much of the valley remains unexplored – by me or by anyone else. Continue reading

The Hardest Conjecture

This article is part of a series on Complex Algebraic Geometry. See also:
1. The Hardest Conjecture; 2. The Valley; 3. A Mathematical Daydream

Among the so-called Millenium Prize Problems – seven notoriously difficult mathematical problems, each open for decades, and each now carrying, courtesy of the Clay Mathematics Institute, a million-dollar prize – Kieth J. Devlin places the Hodge Conjecture last. “[A]n author should delay as long as possible introducing anything is likely to make his reader give up in despair,” Devlin writes in his book, The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of our Time. “There is no… path even to the problem’s front door.”

The Hodge Conjecture fascinated me even before I began studying mathematics. Its sheer inscrutability surely played a role. I sensed, behind the incomprehensible words and symbols of its Wikipedia page, a bafflingly deep, and coherent, world. I had to understand.

The problem’s formidability was only partly to blame. This world – which I envisioned – was not just expansive, but beautiful. I perceived, there, something like Dante’s “music of the heavenly spheres”.

Screen Shot 2016-12-16 at 11.19.07 AM.png

French artist Gustave Doré’s depictions of Dante’s Paradise.

My graduate study has taken me into a field of math relatively close to that which the Hodge Conjecture occupies. As I’ve explored the rich foothills of this towering mountain, its peak has become even more stunning and mysterious.

I will try to explain the conjecture to this blog’s lay readers. Continue reading

Characteristic Classes

This story is part of a series entitled Leaving Mathematics. See also:
1. The Baltimore Snowstorm; 2. The Italian School; 3. Characteristic Classes

Rainer noticed the pattern halfway through July. He had constructed smooth surfaces in a certain four-dimensional smooth algebraic variety, using the Chern classes of vector bundles. He noticed that he could anticipate these surfaces’ Hodge numbers. “This seems to amount virtually to something like a non-existence result,” he wrote, later that day, in an email to a junior faculty member at another school.

Rainer soon sank into a deep depression. “I go full days without saying a single word,” he told Diego, over the phone. Continue reading

Ruminations

Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi informs math and life.

mathnavi

A page from Rumi’s Mathnawi.

“It’s very perverse, what you’re doing,” Professor Vyacheslav Shokurov said, one afternoon in his office chair, with a skepticism characteristic of the mathematician. “One usually begins with examples – examples not treatable by the existing theory. One then develops new theory.”

Shokurov peered at me for an instant, and then lifted his hands from his lap. “But you’ve developed the theory first. And now you go looking for examples.”

My mathematical research had been stalled for about two weeks, for exactly this reason. Continue reading