Définition tendancieuse

(I guess the title of this post would translate as something like “Biased definition” in English; according to the OED, “tendencious” does exist, but is ascribed as coming from the German “tendenziös”)

My son is currently reading an abridged version of Les Misérables for his French class. This is a text intended for schools and comes (among other things) with explanations of “hard words”. While glancing through it recently, I noticed the following striking instance:

Le hasard, c’est-à-dire la providence(1)

where the footnote translates, in lapidary style:

1. Providence = chance

(in English: Providence = luck). I may not know a lot about Victor Hugo, but it’s as clear as day to me that nothing could be further away from his use of the word “providence” than the idea that this is mere luck.

This reminded me of another definition I have seen in the French Larousse Universel encyclopedic dictionary from 1922 concerning the German language (see here in the middle of the page):

Langue: … une langue laborieuse… de là un certain manque de rapidité et de précision dans l’expression de la pensée.

(Or: … a clumsy language… from this comes a certain lack of speed and precision in the expression of one’s thoughts.)

This is actually a very nice book overall, with wonderfully useful illustrations to understand what, say, a “face-à-main” is, or to remind yourself of the important classification of “chapeaux bicornes”

Bicornes
Bicornes

(the scan I am linking to does not do justice to the book; one can download the PDFs of the two volumes, but each is a huge file of at least 250 MB, and the quality is also not so great — but the books become searchable).

Condorcet, Dedekind, Minkowski

One of my great pleasures in life is to walk leisurely down from my office about 30 minutes before the train (to Paris, or Göttingen, or Basel, or what you will) starts, browse a few minutes in one of the second-hand bookstores on the way, and get on the train with some wonderfully surprising book, known or not.

A few months ago, I found “Condorcet journaliste, 1790-1794”,

Condorcet
Condorcet

which one cannot call a well-known book. It is the printed version of the 1929 thesis (at the École des Hautes Études Sociales) of Hélène Delsaux, and its main goal is to survey and discuss in detail all the journal articles that Condorcet, that particularly likable character of the French revolution (about the only one to be happily married, one of the very few in favor of a Republic from the outset, and — amid much ridicule — a supporter of vote for women), wrote during those years.

Condorcet was also known at the time as a mathematician; hence this remarkable quote from the book in question:

Il est généralement admis que rien ne dessèche le coeur comme l’étude approfondie des mathématiques…

or in a rough translation

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing shrivels the heart more than the deep study of mathematics… [Ed. Note: what about real estate?]

This book cost me seven Francs. More recently, my trip to the bookstore was crowned by the acquisition of a reprint of R. Dedekind’s Stetigkeit und irrationale Zahlen” and “Was sind und was sollen die Zahlen” (five Francs)

Dedekind
Dedekind

and of a first edition (Teubner Verlag, Leipzig, 1907) of Minkowski’s “Diophantische Approximationen”

Minkowski
Minkowski

for the princely sum of thirty-eight Francs.

The content of Minkowski’s book is not at all what the title might suggest. There are roughly two parts, one concerned with the geometry of numbers, and the second with algebraic number theory. In both cases, the emphasis is on dimensions 2 and (indeed, especially) 3, so cubic fields are at the forefront of the discussion in the second part. This leads to a much greater number of pictures (there are 82) than a typical textbook of algebraic number theory would have today. Here are two examples,

Minkowski
Minkowski
Minkowski
Minkowski

and here is Minkowski’s description of the Minkowski functional (or gauge) of a convex set:

Minkowski
Minkowski

Reading spines up or down?

Among the minor cultural differences that separate countries is the question of the orientation of the text on the spine of books that identify their title and author when conveniently packed on book shelves: going up

Les Misérables   Der Zauberberg

proudly as French and German books, or going down

The Big Sleep  Il Principe

as English or American or Italian books? When books are ordered by topic or author, this leads to rather uncomfortable switches of orientation of the head as one scans bookshelves for the right oeuvre to read during a lazy afternoon.

Actually, these are more or less contemporary examples, and it seems that these conventions change with time. For instance, I have an old English paperback from 1951 where the title goes up instead of down:

The Greeks
The Greeks

Another from 1962 goes down. When did the change happen? And why? And how do other languages stack up? Is it rather a country-based preference? Are the titles of Italian-language books printed in Switzerland going up (like the French and German ones do), or down? And does this affect the direction in which shivers run along your spine when reading a scary story of murdered baronets in abandoned ruins?

(There’s of course the solution, admittedly snobbish, of writing the title and author’s name horizontally

Le comte de Monte Cristo
Le comte de Monte Cristo

as the Pléiade does, for instance).

Latest adventures

The last two weeks were quite eventful…

First I spent four days in China for the conference in honor of N. Katz’s 71st birthday. I was lucky with jetlag and was able to really enjoy this trip, despite its short length. The talks themselves were quite interesting, even if most of them were rather far from my areas of expertise. I talked about my work with W. Sawin on Kloosterman paths; the slides are now online.

I only had time to participate in one of the excursions, to the Forbidden City,

Forbidden City
Forbidden City

were I took many pictures of Chinese Dragons…

Chinese Dragon
Chinese Dragon

That same evening, with F. Rodriguez Villegas and C. Hall, I explored a small part of the Beijing subway,

Subway map
Subway map

trying to interpret and recognize various Chinese characters, before spending a fair amount of time in a huge bookstore

Bookstore
Bookstore

(where I got some comic books in Chinese for fun).

Upon coming back on Thursday, I first found in my office the two volumes of the letters between Serre and Tate that the SMF has just published, and which I had ordered a few days before taking the plane. Reading the beginning of the first volume was very enjoyable in the train on Friday morning from Zürich to Lausanne, where the traditional Number Theory Days were organized this year. All talks were excellent again — we’re now looking forward to next year’s edition, which will be back in Zürich! And I’ll write later some more comments about the Serre-Tate letters…

And then, from last Monday to Friday, we had in Zürich the conference “Analytic Aspects of Number Theory”, organized by H. Iwaniec, Ph. Michel and myself with the help of FIM. It was great fun, and there were really superb and impressive talks. One interesting experience was the talk by J. Bellaïche : for health reasons, he couldn’t travel to Zürich, but we organized his talk by video (using a software called Scopia), watching it from a teleconference room at ETH. This went rather well.

Radio

For those readers who understand spoken French (or simply appreciate the musicality of the language) and are interested in the history of mathematics, I warmly recommend listening to the recording of a recent programme of Radio France Internationale entitled “Pourquoi Bourbaki ?” In addition to the dialogue of Sophie Joubert with Michèle Audin and Antoine Chambert-Loir, one can hear some extracts of older émissions with L. Schwartz, A. Weil, H. Cartan, J. Dieudonné, for instance.