Kenneth Appel and Colored Maps


Word’s come through mathematics circles about the death of Kenneth Ira Appel, who along with Wolgang Haken did one of those things every mathematically-inclined person really wishes to do: solve one of the long-running unsolved problems of mathematics. Even better, he solved one of those accessible problems. There are a lot of great unsolved problems that take a couple paragraphs just to set up for the lay audience (who then will wonder what use the problem is, as if that were the measure of interesting); Appel and Haken’s was the Four Color Theorem, which people can understand once they’ve used crayons and coloring books (even if they wonder whether it’s useful for anyone besides Hammond).

It was, by everything I’ve read, a controversial proof at the time, although by the time I was an undergraduate the controversy had faded the way controversial stuff doesn’t seem that exciting decades on. The proximate controversy was that much of the proof was worked out by computer, which is the sort of thing that naturally alarms people whose jobs are to hand-carve proofs using coffee and scraps of lumber. The worry about that seems to have faded as more people get to use computers and find they’re not putting the proof-carvers out of work to any great extent, and as proof-checking software gets up to the task of doing what we would hope.

Still, the proof, right as it probably is, probably offers philosophers of mathematics a great example for figuring out just what is meant by a “proof”. The word implies that a proof is an argument which convinces a person of some proposition. But the Four Color Theorem proof is … well, according to Appel and Haken, 50 pages of text and diagrams, with 85 pages containing an additional 2,500 diagrams, and 400 microfiche pages with additional diagrams of verifications of claims made in the main text. I’ll never read all that, much less understand all that; it’s probably fair to say very few people ever will.

So I couldn’t, honestly, say it was proved to me. But that’s hardly the standard for saying whether something is proved. If it were, then every calculus class would produce the discovery that just about none of calculus has been proved, and that this whole “infinite series” thing sounds like it’s all doubletalk made up on the spot. And yet, we could imagine — at least, I could imagine — a day when none of the people who wrote the proof, or verified it for publication, or have verified it since then, are still alive. At that point, would the theorem still be proved?

(Well, yes: the original proof has been improved a bit, although it’s still a monstrously large one. And Neil Robertson, Daniel P Sanders, Paul Seymour, and Robin Thomas published a proof, similar in spirit but rather smaller, and have been distributing the tools needed to check their work; I can’t imagine there being nobody alive who hasn’t done, or at least has the ability to do, the checking work.)

I’m treading into the philosophy of mathematics, and I realize my naivete about questions like what constitutes a proof are painful to anyone who really studies the field. I apologize for inflicting that pain.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

5 thoughts on “Kenneth Appel and Colored Maps”

    1. I realize on thinking about it I’m not sure whether I’ve read Singh’s book on Andrew Wiles or not. I know I’ve read at least one of his books, but my records on this stuff are all a mess.

      Great mathematics puzzles are often split between those which have great stories behind them and those which are just, “this nagged at mathematicians for a long while, until someone had a breakthrough”. I wonder if the difference is actually whether the problem was something that could be explained to a lay audience briefly, or whether at least one Great Weird Mathematics Personality got involved, or whether there just are some things that have histories that can’t be made interesting no matter how important they are. (Keep in mind, I’m a person who owns multiple pop histories of containerized cargo and am glad to.)

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