Abel Laureates 2015 John Nash, Jr. and Louis Nirenberg

The leading lights at Courant were very much at the forefront of rapid progress, stimulated by World War II, in certain kinds of differential equations that serve as mathematical models for an immense variety of physical phenomena involving some sort of change. By the mid-fifties, as Fortune noted, mathematicians knew relatively simple routines for solving ordinary differential equations using computers. But there were no straightforward methods for solving most nonlinear partial differential equations that crop up when large or abrupt changes occur — such as equations that describe the aerodynamic shock waves produced when a jet accelerates past the speed of sound. In his 1958 obituary of von Neumann, who did important work in this field in the thirties, Stanislaw Ulam called such systems of equations “baffling analytically” saying that they “defy even qualitative insights by present methods.” As Nash was to write that same year, “The open problems in the area of non-linear partial differential equations are very relevant to applied mathematics and science as a whole, perhaps, more so than the open problems in any other area of mathematics, and this field seems poised for rapid development. It seems clear however that fresh methods must be employed.”

Nash, partly because of his contact with Norbert Wiener and perhaps his earlier interaction with Weinstein at Carnegie, was already interested in the problem of turbulence. Turbulence refers to the flow of gas or liquid over any uneven surface, like water rushing into a bay, heat or electrical charges travelling through metal, oil escaping from an underground pool, or clouds skimming over an air mass. It should be possible to model such motion mathematically. But, it turns out to be extremely difficult. As Nash wrote:

Little is known about the existence, uniqueness and smoothness of solutions of the general equations of flow for a viscous, compressible, and heat conducting fluid. These are a non-linear parabolic system of equations. An interest in these questions led us to undertake this work. It became clear that nothing could be done about the continuum description of general fluid flow without the ability to handle non-linear parabolic equations and this in turn required an a priori estimate of continuity.

It was Louis Nirenberg, a short, myopic, and sweet-natured young protege of Courant’s, who had handed Nash a major unsolved problem in the then fairly new field of nonlinear theoty. Nirenberg, also in his twenties then, and already a formidable analyst, found Nash a bit strange. “He’d often seemed to have an internal smile, as if he was thinking of a private joke, as he was laughing at a private joke that he had never told anyone about.” But he was extremely impressed with the technique Nash had invented for solving his embedding theorem and sensed that Nash might be the man to crack an extremely difficult outstanding problem that had been open since the late 1950s:

He (Nirenberg) had recalled:

I worked in partial differential equations. I also worked in geometry. The problem had to do with certain kinds of inequalities associated with elliptic partial differential equations. The problem had been around in the field for some time and a number of people had worked on it. Someone had obtained such estimates much earlier in the 1930s in two dimensions. But the problem was open for almost thirty years in higher dimensions.

Nash had begun working on the problem almost as soon as Nirenberg suggested it, although he knocked on doors until he had been satisfied that the problem was as important as Nirenberg had claimed. Peter Lax, who was one of these he had consulted, had commented some time back: In physics, everybody knows the most important problems. They are well-defined. Not so in mathematics. People are more introspective. For Nash, though, it had to be important in the opinion of others.

Nash had started visiting Nirenberg’s office to discuss his progress. But, it was weeks before Nirenberg got any real sense that Nash was getting anywhere. “We would meet often. Nash would say, “I seem to need such and such an inequality. I think it’s true that…” Very often, Nash’s speculations were far off the mark. He was sort of groping. He gave that impression. I wasn’t very confident he was going to get through.

Nitenberg had then sent Nash around to talk to Lars Hormander, a tall, steely Swede who was then already one of the top scholars in the field. Precise, careful, and immensely knowledgeable, Hormander knew Nash, by reputation but had reacted even more skeptically than Nirenberg. “Nash had learned from Nirenberg the importance of extending the Holder estimates known for second-order elliptic equations with two variables and irregular coefficients to higher dimensions,” Hormander had recalled in 1997. “He came to see me several times. ‘What did I think of such and such an inequality?’ At first, his conjectures were obviously false. They were easy to disprove by known facts on constant coefficient operators. He was rather inexperienced in these matters. Nash did things from scratch without using standard techniques. He was always trying to extract problems…(from conversations with others). He had not the patience to study them.”

Nash had continued to grope, but with more success. “After a couple more times,” said Hormander, “he would come up with things that were not so obviously wrong.”

By  the spring, Nash was able to obtain basic existence, uniqueness, and continuity theorems once again using novel methods of his own invention. He had a theory that difficult problems couldn’t be attacked frontally. He had approached the problem in an ingeniously roundabout manner, first transforming the nonllnear equations into linear equations and then attacking these by nonlinear means. “It was a stroke of genius,” said Peter Lax, who had followed the progress of Nash’s research closely. “I have never seen that done. I always kept it in my mind, thinking may be, it will work in another circumstance.”

(Note: Peter Lax is an earlier Abel Laureate).

Nash’s new result had gotten far more immediate attention than his embedding theorem. It had convinced Nirenberg, too, that Nash was a genius. Hormander’s mentor of the University of Lund, Lars Garding, a world class specialist in partial differential equations, had immediately declared, “You have to be a genius to do that.”

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More later,

Nalin Pithwa

Analysis — Chapter 1: continued — Real Variables part 9

9. Relations of magnitude between real numbers. 

It is plain, that, now that we have extended our conception of number, we are bound to make corresponding extensions of our conceptions of equality, inequality, addition, multiplication, and so on. We have to show that these ideas can be applied to the  new numbers, and that, when this extension of them is made, all the ordinary laws of algebra retain their validity, so that we can operate with real numbers in general in exactly the same way as with the rational numbers of Chapter 1, part 1 blog. To do all this systematically would occupy considerable space/time, and we shall be content to indicate summarily how a more systematic discussion would proceed.

We denote a real number by a Greek letter such as \alpha, \beta, \gamma\ldots; the rational numbers of its lower and upper classes by the corresponding English letters a, A; b, B; c, C; …We denote the classes themselves by (a), (A),…

If \alpha and \beta are two real numbers, there are three possibilities:

i) every \alpha is a b and every A a B; in this case, (a) is identical with (b) and (A) with (B);

ii) every a in a b, but not all A’s are B’s; in this case (a) is a proper part of (b)^{*}, and (B) a proper part of (A);

iii) every A is a B, but not all a’s are b’s.

(These three cases may be indicated graphically on a number line).

In case (i) we write \alpha=\beta, in case (ii) \alpha=\beta, and in case (iii) \alpha>\beta. It is clear that, when \alpha and \beta are both rational, these definitions agree with the ideas of equality and inequality between rational numbers which we began by taking for granted; and that any positive number is greater than any negative number.

It will be convenient to define at this stage the negative -\alpha of a positive number \alpha. If

(\alpha), (A) are the classes, which consitute \alpha, we can define another section of the rational numbers by putting all numbers -A in the lower class and all numbers -\alpha in  the upper. The real number thus defined, which is clearly negative, we denote by -\alpha. Similarly, we can define

-\alpha when \alpha is negative or zero; if \alpha is negative, -\alpha is positive, It is plain also  that -(-\alpha)=\alpha. Of the two numbers \alpha and -\alpha one is always positive (unless \alpha=0). The one which is positive we denote by |\alpha| and call the modulus of \alpha.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa

Analysis — Chapter 1 — Real Variables — part 8

8. Real numbers. We have confined ourselves so far to certain sections of the positive rational numbers, which we have agreed provisionally to call “positive real numbers.” Before we frame our final definitions, we must alter our point of view a little. We shall consider sections, or divisions into two classes, not merely of the positive rational numbers, but of all rational numbers, including zero. We may then repeat all that we have said about sections of the positive rational numbers in part 6 and 7 merely omitting the word positive occasionally.

Definitions. A section of the rational numbers, in which both classes exist and the lower class has no greatest member, is called a real number, or simply a number.

A number which does not correspond to a rational number is called an irrational number.

If the real number does correspond to a rational number, we shall use the term “rational” as applying to the real number line.

The term “rational number” will, as a result of our definitions, be ambiguous, it may mean the rational number of part 1, or the, corresponding real number. If we say that 1/2 > 1/3, we may  be asserting either of the two different propositions, one a proposition of elementary arithmetic, the other a proposition concerning sections of the rational numbers. Ambiguities of this kind are common in mathematics, and are perfectly harmless, since the relations between different propositions are exactly the same whichever interpretation is attached to the propositions themselves. From 1/2>1/3 and 1/3>1/4 we can infer 1/2>1/4; the inference is in no way affected by any doubt as to whether 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4 are arithmetic fractions or real numbers. Sometimes, of course, the context in which (example) ‘1/2‘ occurs is sufficient to fix its interpretation. When we say (next blog part 9) that 1/2 < \sqrt{1/3}we must mean by ‘1/2‘ the real number 1/2.

The reader should observe, moreover, that no particular logical importance is to be attached to the precise form of definition of a ‘real number’ that we have adopted. We defined ‘a real number’ as being a section, that is, a pair of classes. We might equally well have defined it to being the lower, or the upper class; indeed it would be easy to define an infinity of classes of entities of each of which would possess the properties of the class of real numbers. What is essential in mathematics is that its symbols should be capable of some interpretation; generally they are capable of many, and then so far as mathematics is concerned, it does not matter which we adopt. Mr. Bertrand Russell has said that “mathematics is the science in which we do not know what we are talking about, and do not care what we say about it is true”, a remark which is expressed in the form of paradox but which in reality embodies a number of important truths. It would take too long to analyze the meaning of Mr Russell’s epigram in detail, but one at any rate of the implications is this, that the symbols of mathematics are capable of varying interpretations, and that we are in general at liberty to adopt whatever we prefer.

There are now three cases to distinguish. It may happen that all negative rational numbers belong to the lower class and zero and all positive rational numbers to the upper. We describe this section as the real number zero. Or, again it may happen that the lower class includes some positive numbers. Such a section we as a positive real number. Finally, it may happen that some negative numbers belong to the upper class. Such a section we describe as a negative real number. 

Note: The difference between our presentation of a positive real number here and that or part 7 of the blogs amounts to the addition to the lower class of zero and all the negative rational numbers. An example of a negative real number is given by taking the property P of part 6 of the blogs to be x+1<0 and Q to be x+1 \geq 0/ This section plainly corresponds to the negative rational number -1. If we took P to be x^{3}<-2 and Q to be x^{3}>-2, we should obtain a negative real number which is not rational.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa

 

 

Analysis — Chapter 1 Real Variables — part 7 — continued

Part 7. Irrational numbers (continued).

In the first two cases, we say that the section corresponds to a positive rational number a, which is l in the one case and r in the other. Conversely, it is clear that to any such number a corresponds a section which we shall denote by

\alpha^{*}. For we might take P and Q to be the properties expressed by

x \leq a, x > a

respectively, or by x<a and x \leq a. In the first case, a would be the greatest number of L, and in the second case the least member of R. These are in fact just two sections corresponding to any positive rational number. In order to avoid ambiguity we select one of them; let us select that in which the number itself belongs to the upper class. In other words, let us agree that we will consider only sections in which the lower class L has no greatest number.

There being this correspondence between the positive rational numbers and the sections defined by means of them, it would be perfectly legitimate, for mathematical purposes, to replace the numbers by the sections, and to regard the symbols which occur in our formulae as standing for the sections instead of for the numbers. Thus, for example,

\alpha > \alpha^{'} would mean the same as a > a^{'}. If \alpha and \alpha^{'} are

the sections which correspond to a and a^{'}.

But, when we have in this way substituted sections of rational numbers for the rational numbers themselves, we are almost forced to a generalization of our number system. For there are sections (such as that of blog on Chapter 1 — part 4) which do not correspond to any rational number. The aggregate of sections is a larger aggregate than that of the positive rational numbers; it includes sections corresponding to all these numbers, and more besides. It is this fact which we make the basis of our generalization of the idea of a number. We accordingly frame the following definitions, which will however be modified in the next blog, and must therefore be regarded as temporary and provisional.

A section of the positive rational numbers, in which both classes exist and the lower class has no greatest member, is called a positive real number.

A positive real number which does not correspond to a positive rational number is called a positive irrational

number.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa

The Universal Appeal of Mathematics — Geetha S. Rao

I am reproducing an article, “The Universal Appeal of Mathematics — Geetha S. Rao” from “The Mathematics Student” , volume 83, Numbers 1 to 4, (2014), 01-04.

The purpose is just to share this beautiful article with the wider student community and math enthusiasts.

The Universal Appeal of Mathematics: Geetha S. Rao:

Mathematics is the Queen of all Sciences, the King of all Arts and the Master of all that is being surveyed. Such is the immaculate and immense potential of the all-pervasive, fascinating subject, that it transcends all geographical barriers, territorial domains and racial prejudices.

The four pillars that support the growth, development, flowering and fruition of this ever green subject are analytic thinking, logical reasoning, critical reviewing and decision thinking.

Every situation in real life can be modelled and simulated in mathematical language. So much so, every human must be empowered with at least a smattering of mathematical knowledge. Indeed, the field of Artificial Intelligence is one where these concepts are implemented and imparted to the digital computers of today.

From times immemorial, people know how to count and could trade using the barter system. Those who could join primary schools learnt the fundamental arithmetic and algebraic rules. Upon entry into high school and higher secondary classes, the acquaintance with the various branches of this exciting subject commences. It is at this point that effective communication skills of the teacher impact the comprehension and conceptual understanding of the students.

Unfortunately, if the teacher is unsure of the methods and rules involved, then begins a dislike of the subject by the students being taught. To prevent a carcinogenic spread of the dislike, the teacher ought to be suitably oriented and know precisely how to captivate the imagination of the students. If this is the case, the students enjoy learning process and even start loving the subject, making them eagely await Mathematics classes, with bated breath!

Acquiring necessary knowledge of algebraic operations, permutations and combinations, rudiments of probabilistic methods, persuasive ideas from differential and integral calculus and modern set theory will strengthen the bonds of mathematical wisdom.

From that stage, when one enters the portals of university education, general or technical, the opportunity to expand one’s horizon of mathematical initiation is stupendous. Besides, the effective use of Mathematics in Aeronautical, Agricultural, Biological, Chemical, Geographical and Physical Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Meteorology, Robotics, Social Sciences and other branches of knowledge is indeed mind boggling.

Armed with this mathematical arsenal, the choice of a suitable career becomes very diverse. No two humans need to see eye to eye as far as such a choice is concerned, as the variety is staggering! So, it is crystal clear that studying Mathematics,at every level, is not only meaningful and worthwhile but absolutely essential.

A natural mathematical genius like Srinivasa Ramanujan was and continues to be an enigma and a Swayambhu, who could dream of extraordinary mathematical formulae, without any formal training.

A formally trained mathematician is capable of achieving laudable goals and imminent success in everything that he chooses to learn and if possible, discover for himself, the eternal truths of mathematics, provided he pursues the subject with imagination, passion, vigour and zeal.

Nothing can be so overwhelming as a long standing problem affording a unique solution, bu the creation of new tools, providing immense pleasure, a sense of reward and tremendous excitement in the voyage of discovery.

These flights of imagination and intuition form the core of research activities. With the advent of the computers, numerical algorithms gained in currency and greater precision, enabling the mathematical techniques to grow by leaps and bounds!

Until the enumeration of the Uncertainty Principle by Werner Heisenberg, in 1932, mathematics meant definite rules of certainty. One may venture to say that this is the origin of Fuzziness. Lotfi Zadeh wrote a seminal paper, entitled Fuzzy sets, Information and Control,

8, 1965, 328-353. He must be considered a remarkable pioneer who invented the subject of Fuzzy mathematics, which is the amalgam of mathematical rules and methods of probability put together to define domains of fuzziness.

Fuzzy means frayed, fluffy, blurred or indistinct. On a cold wintry day, haziness is seen around at dawn, and a person or an object at a distance, viewed through the mist, will appear hazy. This is a visual representation of fuzziness. The input variables in a fuzzy control systems are mapped into sets of membership functions known as fuzzy sets. The process of converting a crisp input value to a fuzzy value is called fuzzification.

A control system may also have various types of switches or on-off inputs along with its analog inputs, and such switch inputs will have a truth value equal to either 0 or 1.

Given mappings of input variables into membership functions and truth values, the micro controller makes decisions concerning what action should be taken, based on a set of rules. Fuzzy concepts are those that cannot be expressed as true or false, but rather as partially true!

Fuzzy logic is involved in approximating rather than precisely determining the value. Traditional control systems are based on mathematical models in which one or more differential equations that define the system’s response to the inputs will be used. In many cases, the mathematical model of the control process may not exist, or may be too expensive, in terms of computer processing power and memory, and a system based on empirical rules may be more effective.

Furthermore, fuzzy logic is more suited to low cost implementation based on inexpensive sensors, low resolution analog-to-digital converters and 4-bit or 8 bit microcontroller chips. Such systems can be easily upgraded by adding new rules/novel features to improve performance. In many cases, fuzzy control can be used to enhance the power of existing systems by adding an extra layer of intelligence to the current control system. In practice, there are several different ways to define a rule, but the most simple one employed is the max-min inference method, in which the output membership function is given the truth value generated by the underlying premise. It is important to note that rules involved in hardware are parallel, while in software they are sequential.

In 1985, interest in fuzzy systems was sparked by the Hitachi company in Japan, whose experts demonstrated the superiority of fuzzy control systems for trains. These ideas were quickly adopted and fuzzy systems were used to control accelerating, braking, and stoppage of electric trains, which led to the historic introduction, in 1987, of the bullet train, with a speed of 200 miles per hour, between Tokyo and Sendai.

During an international conference of fuzzy researchers in Tokyo, in 1987, T. Yamakawa explained the use of fuzzy control, through a set of simple dedicated fuzzy logic chips, in an inverted pendulum experiment. The Japanese soon became infatuated with fuzzy systems and implemented these methods in a wide range of astonishing commercial and industrial applications.

In 1988, the vacuum cleaners of Matsushita used micro controllers running fuzzy algorithms to interrogate dust sensors and adjust suction power accordingly. The Hitachi washing machines used fuzzy controllers to load-weight, fabric-mix and dirt sensors and automatically set the wash cycle for the optimum use of power, water and detergent.

The renowned Canon camera company developed an auto-focusing camera that used a charge coupled device to measure the clarity of the image in six regions in its field of view and use the information provided to determine if the image is in focus. It also tracks the rate of change of lens movement during focusing and controls its speed to prevent overshoot.

Work on fuzzy systems is also being done in USA, Europe, China and India. NASA in USA has studied fuzzy control for automated space docking, as simulation showed that a fuzzy control system can greatly reduce fuel consumption. Firms such as Boeing, General Motors, Allen-Bradley, Chrysler, Eaton and Whirlpool have used fuzzy logic to improve on automotive transmission, energy efficient electric meters, low power refrigerators, etc.

Researchers are concentrating on many applications of fuzzy control systems, have developed fuzzy systems and have integrated fuzzy logic, neural networks and adaptive genetic software systems, with the ultimate goal of building self-learning fuzzy control systems.

This, in my opinion, is sufficient reason to  induce you to start learning mathematics!

Geetha S. Rao,

Ex Professor, Ramanujan Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics, University of Madras, 

Chepauk, Chennai 600005.

Email: geetha_srao@yahoo.com

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More later,

Nalin Pithwa

Analysis — Chapter 1 — Real Variables: part 6: Irrational numbers continued

6. Irrational numbers (continued).

In Part 4, we discussed a special mode of division of the positive rational numbers x into two classes, such that x^{2}<2 for the numbers of one class and x^{2}>2 for those of the others. Such a mode of division is called a section of the numbers in question. It is plain that we could equally well construct a section in which the numbers of the two classes were characterized by the inequalities

x^{3}<2 and x^{3}>2, or x^{4}>7 and x^{4}<7. Let us now attempt to state the principles of the construction of such “sections” of the positive rational numbers in quite general terms.

Suppose that P and Q stand for two properties which are mutually exclusive and one of which must be possessed by every positive rational number. Further, suppose that every such number which possesses P is less than any such number which possesses Q. Thus, P might be the property “x^{2}<2” and Q the property “x^{2}>2“. Then, we call the numbers which possess P the lower or left-hand class L and those which possess Q the upper or right hand class R. In general, both classes will exist; but, it may happen in special cases that one is non-existent and every number belongs to the other. This would obviously happen, for example, if P (or Q) were the property of being rational, or of being positive. For the present, however, we shall confine ourselves to cases  in which both the classes do exist; and then it follows, as in Part 4, that we can find a member of L and a member of R, whose difference is as small as we please.

In the particular case, which we considered in Part 4, L had no greatest member and R no least. This question of the existence of greatest or least members of the classes is of the utmost importance. We observe first that it is impossible in any case that L should have a greatest member and R least. For, if l were the greatest member of L, and r the least of R, so that l<r, then (1/2)(l+r) would be a positive rational number lying between l and r, and so could neither belong to L nor to R, and this contradicts our assumption that every such number belongs to one class  or to the other.  This being so, there are but three possibilities, which are mutually exclusive. Either

(i) L has a greatest member l, or (ii) R has a least member, r, or (iii) L has no greatest member and R no least.

(In Part 4, there is an example of the last possibility.)

More later,

Nalin Pithwa

Analysis — Chapter I — Real Variables — Part 5 — Irrational numbers continued

We have thus divided the positive rational numbers into two classes, L and R, such that (i) every member of R is greater than every member of L, and (ii) we can find a member of L and a member of R, whose difference is as small as we please, (iii) L has no greatest and R has not least member. Our common-sense notion of the attributes of a straight line, the requirements of our elementary geometry and our elementary algebra, alike demand the existence of a number x greater than all the members of L and less than all the members of R, and of a corresponding point P on \Lambda such that P divides the points which correspond to members of L from those which correspond to members of R.

Let us suppose for a moment that there is such a number x and that it may be operated upon in accordance with laws of algebra, so that, for example, x^{2} has a definite meaning. Then x^{2} cannot either be less than or greater than 2. For suppose, for example, that x^{2} is less than 2. Then, it follows from what precedes that we can find a positive rational number \xi such that \xi^{2} lies between x^{2} and 2. That is to say, we can find a member of L greater than x; and this contradicts the supposition that x divides the members of L from those of R. Thus, x^{2} cannot be less than 2, and similarly, it cannot be greater than 2. We are therefore driven to the conclusion that x^{2}=2, and that x is the number which in algebra  we denote by \sqrt{2}. And, of course, this number \sqrt{2} is not rational, for no rational number has its square equal to 2. It is the simplest example of what is called an irrational number.

But the preceding argument may be applied to equations other than x^{2}=2, almost word for word; for example, to

x^{2}=N, where N is an integer which is not a perfect square, or to

$latex $x^{3}=3$ and x^{2}=7 and x^{4}=23,

or, as we shall see later on. to x^{3}=3x+8. We are thus led to believe for the existence of irrational numbers x and points P on \Lambda such that x satisfies equations such as these, even when these lengths cannot (as \sqrt{2} can) be constructed by means of elementary geometric methods.

The reader may now follow one or other of two alternative courses. He may, if he pleases, be content to assume that “irrational numbers” such as \sqrt{2} and \sqrt[5]{3} exist and are amenable to usual algebraic laws. If he does this, he will be able to avoid the more abstract discussions of the next few blogs.

If, on the other hand, he is not disposed to adopt so naive an attitude, he will be well advised to pay careful attention to the blogs which follow, in which these questions receive further consideration.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa

 

What are worthwhile problems as per Richard Feynman, American, Physics Nobel Laureate

What are worthwhile problems as per Richard Feynman

The letter below is from Perfectly Reasonabe Deviations From The Beaten Track, a book of letters of Richard Feynman. It is one of the most moving letters that I have read. Tomonaga mentioned below shared the 1965 Nobel prize for physics along with Feynman and Schwinger.

A former student, who was also once a student of Tomonaga’s, wrote to extend his congratulations. Feynman responded, asking Mr. Mano what he was now doing. The response: “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere… a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.”

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depends on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. now your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.
Sincerely,
Richard P. Feynman.
An accomplished father giving heartfelt advice to a son struggling to find his way, a teacher who immediately feels from a few gestures what a pupil is going through and reaches out due to his love for his student and due to his own humility, a man who recognizes his greatness and his defects in equal measure

Analysis — Chapter 1 — Real Variables — Part 4 Irrational numbers continued

Part 4. Irrational numbers (continued).

The result of our geometrical interpretation of the rational numbers is therefore to suggest the desirability of enlarging our conception of “number” by the introduction of further numbers of a new kind.

The same conclusion might have been reached without the use of geometrical language. One of the central problems of algebra is that of the solution of equations, such as

x^{2}=1, x^{2}=2.

The first equation has the two rational roots 1 and -1. But, if our conception of number is to be limited to the rational numbers, we can only say that the second equation has no roots; and the same is the case with such equations as x^{3}=2, x^{4}=7. These facts are plainly sufficient to make some generalization of our idea of number desirable, if it should prove to be possible.

Let us consider more closely the equation x^{2}=2.

We have already seen that there is no rational number x which satisfies this equation. The square of any rational number is either less than or greater than 2. We can therefore divide the rational numbers into two classes, one containing the numbers whose squares are less than 2, and the other those whose squares are greater than 2. We shall confine our attention to the positive rational numbers, and we shall call these two classes the class L, or the lower class, or the left-hand class, and the class R, or the upper class, or the right hand class. It is obvious that every member of R is greater than all the members of class R. Moreover, it is easy to convince ourselves that we can find a member of the class L whose square, though less than 2, differs from 2 by as little as possible, and a member of R whose square, though greater than 2, also differs from 2 by as little as we please. In fact, it we carry out the ordinary arithmetical process for the extraction of the square root of 2, we obtain a series of rational numbers, viz.,

1,1.4, 1.41, 1.414, 1.4142, \ldots

whose squares

1, 1.96, 1.9881, 1.999396, 1.99996164, \ldots

are all less than 2, but approach nearer and nearer to it, and by taking a sufficient number of the figures given by the process we can obtain as close an approximation as we want. And if we increase the last figure, in each of the approximations given above, by unity, we obtain a series of rational numbers

2, 1.5, 1.42, 1.415,1.413, \ldots

whose squares

4, 2.25, 2.0164, 2.002225, 2.00024449, \ldots

are all greater than 2, but approximate to 2 as closely as we please.

It follows also that there can be no largest member of L or smallest member of R. For if x is any member of L, then

x^{2} < 2. Suppose that x^{2}=2-\delta. Then we can find a member x, of L such that {x_{1}}^{2} differs from 2 by less than \delta, and {x_{1}}^{2}>x^{2} or x_{1}>x. Thus there are larger members of L than x; and, as x is any member of L, it follows that no member of L can be larger than all the rest. Hence, L has no largest member, and similarly, it has no smallest.

Note: A rigorous analysis of the above can be easily carried out. If you need help, please let me know and I will post it in the next blog.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa