E. Kowalski's blog

         Comments on mathematics, mostly.


Sharks and Snakes

Filed under: Arts,Switzerland @ 18:53

The Swiss stereotypes do not usually suggest a great sense of humor. But since I’ve been in Zürich, I’ve noticed a certain style of quiet understated humor, in particular in advertising.

Here’s one ad for the most famous vegetarian restaurant in Zürich (probably the best in the world):



Here’s an ad for the Zürich public transportation system; the left-hand man is a right-wing politician, and the right-hand one a socialist (I had to look this up; I’m not really up to date on local politics), and the ad says that fortunately there is a tram stop on average every 300 meters…



Here’s a recent ad to warn against swimming in the wrong places in the river, despite the absence of sharks (Hai means shark in German):




My office in 1870

Filed under: Mathematics,Switzerland @ 20:23

The historical “main” building of ETH was finished 150 years ago, in 1864. Or rather, the first version was finished, since it was altered and extended quite a bit since then (as did the surroundings!). In a recent NZZ article, I saw this picture

ETH 1870

ETH in 1870

of the building as it looked in 1870. The red square indicates where my office is located…


Upcoming books

Filed under: Mathematics @ 10:38

As the summer vacations draw to a close, I’d like to point to two upcoming AMS books which might, hopefully, interest some readers…

(1) My lecture notes on representation theory (expanded) will appear in September, published in the Graduate Studies in Mathematics series; the preview material contains Chapter 1, and a fair bit of Chapter 2; the index is also available, and perusing it will give an idea of the range of topics mentioned.

(2) Henryk Iwaniec has also a new book coming, in October, containing his lectures notes on the Riemann zeta function. I haven’t seen it yet, but he told me that the highlight, in his opinion, is the second part which contains his personal treatment of the Levinson method for finding critical zeros of zeta. This should be quite interesting to read…

Update (August 29): the AMS web site confirms that my book is already available!


Impressions de la recherche

Filed under: France,Language,Literature @ 12:46

Although my knowledge of French literature is rather shamefully fragmentary, I’ve at least, this year, managed to close one gap: I read À la recherche du temps perdu between January and last week-end. This was where I found a very funny allusion to esoteric monographs (it’s in the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).

Did I like the book? This is probably far from the right question to ask in any case, but it’s therefore worth investigating in a post-modern spirit. Since I finished the whole of the seven volumes in about seven months, during which time I had to take care of many other activities, and also started (and often stopped) reading a fair number of other books, I was certainly finding something in Proust that kept me engaged in his work.

One technical aspect of Proust’s style that struck me was how he manages to capture the way that crucial events or characters will first appear informally and casually in life. Here’s for example the first time the narrator meets Gilberte while playing at the Champs-Élysées:

Retournerait-elle seulement aux Champs-Élysées? Le lendemain elle n’y était pas; mais je l’y vis, les jours suivants; je tournais tout le temps autour de l’endroit où elle jouait avec ses amies, si bien qu’une fois où elles ne se trouvèrent pas en nombre pour leur partie de barres, elle me fit demander si je voulais compléter leur camp, et je jouai désormais avec elle chaque fois qu’elle était là.

And here is the first appearance of the jeunes filles, among whome is Albertine:

J’aurais osé entrer dans la salle de balle, si Saint-Loup avait été avec moi. Seul je restai simplement devant le Grand-Hôtel à attendre le moment d’aller retrouver ma grand-mère, quand, presque encore à l’extrémité de la digue où elles faisaient mouvoir une tâche singulière, je vis s’avancer cinq ou six fillettes, aussi différentes, par l’aspect et par les façons, de toutes les personnes auxquelles on était accoutumé à Balbec, qu’aurait pu l’être, débarquée on ne sait d’où, une bande de mouettes qui exécute à pas comptés sur la plage — les retardataires rattrapant les autres en voletant — une promenade dont le but semble aussi obscur aux baigneurs qu’elles ne paraissent pas voir, que clairement déterminé dans leur esprit d’oiseaux.

This comes with no warning or no articifial build-up of something is going to happen, drumroll, drumroll.

I was also very touched by the last pages, which certainly affected my overall impression and reaction in a way that I’ve only felt before when finishing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (after which I went into a rather intense faulknerian phase during my PhD years). It seems that to understand Proust (as much as I can…), I would have to re-read the whole text, in the light of these last pages. Is that the expected reaction? It could well be… Will I do it? Who knows…

On a different note, I was amused to see that while the first Pléiade edition is a rather straightforward edition of the novel with short notes and biographical information (rather like the Library of America editions of Faulkner, for instance), the second edition succombs

Proust, compared

Proust, compared

to editorial inflation on a magnificent scale: the variants, esquisses, notes and notes on the esquisses, take up more space than the actual text!

Here is the first volume of the old edition:



compared with the second of the new edition:



This can of course be helpful, as are certainly useful the 125 pages of Liste des personnages cités which allow you to quickly locate all the places where Rembrandt, or the Marquis de Norpois, or Saint Simon, or any other character, real or imagined, makes an appearance in the whole text.



(There is a similar list for names of places and names of works of arts, again real or imagined).

Another thing I noticed is that the first edition doesn’t use accented letters as capitals at the beginning of sentences, while the second does:

No accent

No accent

compared with

Second, accented

Second, accented



As pointed out by Philippe, this abstruse goose cartoon shows that analytic number theory is now part of the Zeitgeist.

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