Pedantic style

One of my mathematics teachers, a long time ago, once objected to statements of the type

Let X and Y be two compact topological spaces. Then X x Y is also compact

on the ground that the use of two implied that the statement did not apply to the case of X x X, whose compacity would need to be stated separately, as it was not, strictly speaking, an application of the given statement.

His favored solution was to drop the two (or, in French, to replace Soient X et Y deux espaces… by Soient X et Y des espaces….), with the idea (I presume) that making a grammatical mistake (using a plural form like des when, sometimes, there is only one object, if X=Y) would be less important than a mathematical one.

Strangely enough, I still sometimes remember this, and I have modified various sentences to try to go around it, although the whole thing seems quite absurd really… I wonder if others have heard this type of rules, and if there’s a mathematically and syntaxically correct way to phrase things without being absurdly formal?

Publishing notes from all over

A select few of my mathematical books exhibit the type of quirky behavior that (quite justifiably) causes authors to consider publishers as being in league with the devil. In increasing order of amusement, here is one page of the index of my copy of Reed and Simons’s “Functional Analysis” (Modern Methods of Mathematical Physics, Vol. I)

Reed and Simon index
Reed and Simon index

Then here is one page of Goodman and Wallach’s “Representations and invariants of the classical groups”

Page of Goodman-Wallach
Page of Goodman-Wallach

which almost looks normal, except for (as in the red circle I drew) the ligatures “fi” which are missing. It must have caused much grinding of teeth to the authors to note that this is not the case all over the book: many of the pages contain an abundance of “finite”, “definition”, etc, with no error whatsoever. In particular, opening the book at random, you would never detect the problem.

And finally, my masterpiece, if I may say so: my copy of Katz and Sarnak’s “Random matrices, Frobenius eigenvalues, and monodromy”, where the introduction, from page 5 to page 20, felt that its importance justified that it be repeated after page 228 (up to page 244):

Two pages of Katz-Sarnak
Two pages of Katz-Sarnak

None of these, however, are as extraordinary as the instance reported in the story “The Missing Line” of Isaac Bashevis Singer, where an abstruse philosophical sentence — “the transcendental unity of the apperception” — mystically moves from one Yiddish newspaper to another. (Although it is in a work of fiction, so might be a complete invention, I have the impression that it is so bizarre that it must have actually happened).

The strange word “cuspidal”

I am currently looking at various papers (and books) about the representation theory of p-adic groups (especially GL(2,Qp)), and in particular about the so-called discrete series. I was convinced that the standard terminology for those representations (except for the special case of the Steinberg representation) was “supercuspidal”, but it turns out that various references use either “absolutely cuspidal” or simply “cuspidal”. The last is the terminology in the (outstanding) book of Bushnell and Henniart, who fortunately mention the other two possibilities, but I wonder how many outsiders have been hopelessly confused by this type of wobbling…

By a nice coincidence (though it may be showing that the Stars really suggest “cuspidate” as the right word), one of the citations for “cuspidal” in the Oxford English Dictionary is

3. Of teeth: = CUSPIDATE.
1867 BUSHNELL Mor. Uses Dark Th. 274 Cuspidal teeth.

(the reference is to the masterpiece “The complete ship-wright” of a certain Edward Bushnell in 1664).

Going further, intrepidly, we learn that “cuspidate” is an invention of a J. Hunter (“The natural history of the human teeth”, 1771–78), and that this learned man decided to call “cuspidati” what are “vulgarly called canine”. It follows that the friends of Langlands, if they moreover wish to be progressive, should speak proudly of “canine (or supercanine) representations”, of “canine forms”, and so on…

Bad writing advice: write the introduction first!

A classic advice about writing papers and books is to write the introduction last. I must admit that it makes excellent sense, and in fact, I’m sure I’ve told as much to students. However, I find that I’m usually sorely tempted to write the Introduction first, and that I end up doing this quite often (especially when the project involved is not a joint paper).

There is an advantage in this approach: if I write the introduction early, most often I do not know the precise technical statements that will come out of the arguments, so I am forced to try to explain the motivation, the main points and the qualitative interest of the paper, instead of focusing on the minutia of the actual theorem, which may well be of less importance. Of course, this is partly a consequence of working in a field (analytic number theory) where it is very frequent that the final theorem involves (for instance) some parameters whose value is not particularly important, but where it is instead crucial that it is positive, etc. Some other fields afford much cleaner statements: something like “for every elliptic curve E/Q, the group E(Q) is an abelian group of finite type”, or like “two compact hyperbolic manifolds M and N of dimension at least 3 are isometric if and only if they have isomorphic fundamental groups” can not really be made clearer by trying to focus on any larger picture…

The disadvantages, on the other hand, are in fact quite real: one may write and polish with enthusiasm an introduction (so it becomes suitable for a O’Henry award) only to realize when coming to the point of writing the proofs that a fatal mistake lurked somewhere in the arguments only sketched previously. Or one may find new ideas or points of view when writing the proofs in question that lead to a complete change of emphasis of the paper (e.g., going from proving a special case of a statement to a more general one), and require a complete overhaul of the finely chiseled prose of the already completed introduction…

Indeed, both have happened to me, except of course that the literary quality of my drafts are far from deserving any award. The elephant cemetery section of my LaTeX directories contains at least three sad and melancholy beginnings of papers that will most likely never be revived, and I don’t know how many times I ended up re-working the introduction to my book on the large sieve (the final version of which states, quite accurately, that this project started as a planned short paper on extending previous results about the large sieve for Frobenius over finite fields to work in small sieve contexts…)

More mathematical terminology: friable

Today’s terminological post will be a contribution to the French-led insurgency that tries to replace the denomination “smooth number” (or “smooth integer“) with the much better “friable number” (in French, “nombre friable” instead of “nombre lisse“).

Of course, many readers may wonder “what is this anyway?”. And part of the point is that the better choice may lead such a reader to guess fairly accurately what is meant (possibly with a hint that this has to do with multiplicative properties of integers), whereas playing a game of “Define a smooth number” with a wide group of mathematicians may probably lead to wildly different interpretations.

So here is the definition: a positive integer n is called y-friable (or smooth, if you still insist) if all the prime divisors of n are at most y. The idea is that y should be much smaller than n, so that this means (intuitively) that n only has “small” prime factors. But the definition makes sense for all y, and for instance, any integer n is n-friable, a 2-friable integer is a power of 2, etc.

I do not wish to discuss the properties of those integers (only their name), so let me just refer to this survey by Granville for a discussion of their basic properties and of their applications to computational number theory.

The adjective “friable” (Capable of being easily crumbled or reduced to powder, OED) seems perfect to describe this type of integers: it is evocative and conveys not only something of the technical definition, but also a lot of the intuitive meaning and applicability. The other contender, “smooth”, has several problems (in fairness, it has at least one positive aspect: whatever we call them, the integers without large prime factors are extremely useful in many parts of analytic and algorithmic number theory, and the underlying current that smoothness is something desirable is not usurped): (1) it is much too overloaded (search for “smooth” without more precision in Math Reviews: 68635 hits as of tonight; for “friable”, only 19); (2) whichever meaning of smooth you want to carry from another field, it does not really mean anything here; (3) not to mention that, chronologically speaking, the terminology was already preempted by the smooth integers of Moerdijk and Reyes, which are the solutions of the equation sin π x=0 in the real line of suitable topoi (such as the smooth Zariski topos, apparently).

The chronology of the use of these words, as it appears from Math Reviews at least, seems quite interesting: the first mention it finds of “smooth numbers” in the number-theoretic meaning is in the title of a paper of Balog and Pomerance, published in 1992. However, the notion is of course quite a bit older: the standard paraphrase was “integers without large prime factors”, with many variants (as can be seen from the bibliography of Granville’s survey, e.g, A. A. Buchstab, “On those numbers in an arithmetic progression all prime factors of which are small in order of magnitude”, 1949; Balog and Sarkozy, “On sums of integers having small prime factors, I”, 1984; Harman, “Short intervals containing numbers without large prime factors”, 1991; etc : clearly, something needed to be done…).

As for “friable”, the first number-theoretic use (interestingly, the six oldest among the 19 occurences of “friable” in Math Reviews also refer to other contexts than number theory, namely some studies of models of friable materials, from 1956 to 1987) is in a review (by G. Martin in 2005) of a paper of Pomerance and Shparlinski from 2002, though “smooth” is used instead in the paper. The first occurence in a paper (and so, possibly, in print) is in one by G. Tenenbaum and J. Wu, published in 2003. It must be said that, for the moment, only French writers seem to use the right word (Tenenbaum, de la Bretèche, Wu, and their students)… G. Martin consistently uses it in his reviews, despite having to recall that this is the same as smooth numbers; however, he uses “smooth” in the title and body of his paper on friable values of polynomials (published in 2002, admittedly, and the abstract on his web page uses mostly “friable” instead…).