Best and Worst of 2017

New Year’s Eve, that magical night in the long cold dark of winter when we reflect on the best and worst of the year gone by. Image via Flickrcc

As this year comes careening to a screeching halt, it’s time once again for that annual tradition of the best and worst of the year…in math. And what a year it’s been! Where to begin? Let’s start with the good stuff.

The Best of 2017

The movie Hidden Figures (based on the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly), about role of the african american lady mathematicians in space travel, was a huge and exciting success. The movie is fantastic, and may even pass some of 538’s new and improved spins on the classic Bechdel Test.

There has also been a bunch of fun stuff going on in the computer science realm this year. An unknown blogger turned hero stopped a multinational terrorist conglomerate in the WannaCry episode, neural networks have been getting more sophisticated and we’ve started to get a better understanding of the apparent bottlenecks, and cryptocurrency and the blockchain is currently the coolest thing to blab about at holiday parties. Although, full disclosure, I’m writing this on Dec. 22 and as of this morning Bitcoin is down 30$% from its all-time high, so cryptocurrency may be full-on milkshake ducked by the time you read this.

In very (very) recent news, it looks like some doubt has been cast on the famed Navier Stokes equations. Physicists use the equations to model fluid flows but mathematicians have long been in search of a rigorous proof of (or counterexample to) the equations. As reported by Kevin Hartnett in Quanta, it looks like a group out of Princeton has shown that under certain conditions the Navier Stokes equations return rubbish. This is a compelling development. Incidentally, these equations were also a critical plot point in the mathematical blockbuster Gifted that also came out this year.

Finally, one of my personal favorites in math writing this year was Mathematics For Human Flourishing, written Francis Su on his blog The Mathematical Yawp. It was, and is, an important and thoughtful reminder as we bring this tumultuous year to a close. Which brings us to…

The Worst of 2017

The situation in Washington DC has continued to be the worst. Karen Saxe, who writes the AMS blog Capital Currents has done a great job keeping us abreast of how changes in Washington will affect mathematicians. Most recently, how the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will affect graduate students (read: badly), and the current climate of federal funding for mathematics (read: doomed).

In that vein, the Simons Foundation updated their eligibility requirements this year for their Collaborative Travel Grant. Now it seems that only tenure stream faculty at institutions granting PhDs in mathematics are eligible to apply. This is really bad for the great many of us who work at institutions that grant many PhDs in fields *other* than math and therefore are eligible neither for Simons funding, nor for NSF Research at Undergraduate Institution funding. Let’s fix that, eh?

This year saw the passing of several notable mathematicians, including Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female Fields Medalist, and Fields Medalist Vladimir Voevodsky.

And now, as I’ve done for many years, I’ll close with an update on Mochizuki’s claimed proof of the ABC conjecture. I’ve been wrestling with whether to put this in the best or worst subheading, but here is where the hammer dropped. It looks like Mochizuki’s proof is poised to be published in the Publications of the RIMS. In a persuasively written post on his blog Persiflage, Frank Calegari argues that the ABC conjecture has (still) not been proved. The current state of things with ABC is, as Calgari puts it, “a complete disaster.” Largely, he says, because whether or not the paper is correct it hasn’t gained any clarity in the referee process and it still completely opaque, despite the fact that there was a 300-page summary published by Go Yamashita this year, saving the intrepid reader ~100 pages. Other number theorists disagree. On Facebook, Chris Rasmussen argues that the state of ABC is hardly a disaster, and in fact is no different from the verification of any mathematical breakthrough, it’s simply proceeding at a slower pace.

I’m going to close 2017 of the mind that ABC is still a conjecture. I’ll let you know where I stand next December. If you disagree with me, let me know why @extremefriday. Until then, a happy new year to you and yours. May you find clarity in all of your logical arguments, satisfaction in all of your mathematical endeavors, and grant funding raining from the sky!

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