Probability, Primes, and Pi

What is the probability that two randomly chosen integers have no prime factors in common?  In honor of Pi Day, I’d like to explain the surprising answer: 6/\pi^2.

The hero of this story is Leonhard Euler, who worked out this astonishing connection between prime numbers and \pi through a series of brilliant insights.  In the spirit of Euler, I will be rather cavalier about issues of convergence and rigor here, focusing on the key underlying ideas.

18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler

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John Nash and the theory of games

John Forbes Nash and his wife Alicia nashwere tragically killed in a car crash on May 23, having just returned from a ceremony in Norway where John Nash received the prestigious Abel Prize in Mathematics (which, along with the Fields Medal, is the closest thing mathematics has to a Nobel Prize). Nash’s long struggle with mental illness, as well as his miraculous recovery, are depicted vividly in Sylvia Nasar’s book “A Beautiful Mind” and the Oscar-winning film which it inspired. In this post, I want to give a brief account of Nash’s work in game theory, for which he won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics. Before doing that, I should mention, however, that while this is undoubtedly Nash’s most influential work, he did many other things which from a purely mathematical point of view are much more technically difficult. Nash’s Abel Prize, for example (which he shared with Louis Nirenberg), was for his work in non-linear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis, which most mathematicians consider to be Nash’s deepest contribution to mathematics. You can read about that work here. Continue reading

Excerpts from the Grothendieck-Serre Correspondence

Like many fellow mathematicians, I was very sad to hear the news that Alexander Grothendieck passed away yesterday.  grothendieckThe word “genius” is overused; or rather, does not possess sufficiently fine gradations.  I know quite a few mathematical geniuses, but Grothendieck was a singularity.  His ideas were so original, so profound, and so revolutionary – and he had so many of them! – that I will not even attempt to summarize his contributions to mathematics here.  Rather, I thought that I would share some of my favorite passages from the fascinating Grothendieck-Serre Correspondence, published in a bilingual edition by the AMS and SMF.   They illuminate in brief flashes what made Grothendieck so extraordinary — but also human.  They also illustrate how influential Serre was on Grothendieck’s mathematical development.  Before I begin, here is a quote from another wonderful book, Alexander Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait, edited by Leila Schneps:

…the features which constitute in some sense his personal mathematical signature… are very familiar to those who know Grothendieck’s work: the search for maximum generality, the focus on the harmonious aspects of structure, the lack of interest in special cases, the transfer of attention from objects themselves to morphisms between them, and—perhaps most appealingly—Grothendieck’s unique approach to difficulties that consisted in turning them, somehow, upside down, and making them into the actual central point and object of study, an attitude which has the power to subtly change them from annoying obstacles into valuable tools that actually help solve problems and prove theorems… Of course, Grothendieck also possessed tremendous technical prowess, not even to mention a capacity for work that led him to concentrate on mathematics for upward of sixteen hours a day in his prime, but those are not the elements that characterize the magic in his style. Rather, it was the absolute simplicity (in his own words, “nobody before me had stooped so low”) and the total freshness and fearlessness of his vision, seemingly unaffected by long-established views and vantage points, that made Grothendieck who he was.

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