Where do you get all those mathematical toys?

I’m at a conference at Caltech this week, so it’s going to be a shorter post than usual.

The conference is on something call the Positive Grassmannian, a precursor to Nima Arkani-Hamed’s much-hyped Amplituhedron. Both are variants of a central idea: take complicated calculations in physics and express them in terms of clean, well-defined mathematical objects.

Because of this, this conference is attended not just by physicists, but by mathematicians as well, and it’s been interesting watching how the two groups interact.

From a physics perspective, mathematicians are great because they give us so many useful tools! Many significant advances in my field happened because a physicist talked to a mathematician and learned that a problem that had stymied the physics world had already been solved in the math community.

This tends to lead to certain expectations among physicists. If a mathematician gives a talk at a physics conference, we expect them to present something we can use. Our ideal math talk is like when Q presents the gadgets at the beginning of a Bond movie: a ton of new toys with just enough explanation for us to use them to save the day in the second act.

Pictured: Mathematicians, through Physicist eyes

You may see the beginning of a problem here, once you realize that physicists are the James Bond in this analogy.

Physicists like to see themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. That’s true of every field, though, to some degree or another. And it’s certainly true of mathematicians.

Mathematicians don’t go to physics conferences just to be someone’s supporting cast. They do it because physics problems are interesting to them: by hearing what physicists are working on they hope to get inspiration for new mathematical structures, concepts jury-rigged together by physicists that represent corners that mathematics hasn’t yet explored. Their goal is to take home an idea that they can turn into something productive, gaining glory among their fellow mathematicians. And if that sounds familiar…

Pictured: Physicists, through Mathematician eyes

While it’s amusing to watch the different expectations go head-to-head, the best collaborations between physicists and mathematicians are those where both sides respect that the other is the protagonist of their own story. Allow for give-and-take, paying attention not just to what you find interesting but to what the other person does, without assuming a tired old movie script, and it’s possible to make great progress.

Of course, that’s true of life in general as well.


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