My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Michael Atiyah


To start this year’s great glossary project Mr Wu, author of the MathTuition88.com blog, had a great suggestion: The Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem. It’s an important and spectacular piece of work. I’ll explain why I’m not doing that in a few sentences.

Mr Wu pointed out that a biography of Michael Atiyah, one of the authors of this theorem, might be worth doing. GoldenOj endorsed the biography idea, and the more I thought it over the more I liked it. I’m not able to do a true biography, something that goes to primary sources and finds a convincing story of a life. But I can sketch out a bit, exploring his work and why it’s of note.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Michael Atiyah.

Theodore Frankel’s The Geometry of Physics: An Introduction is a wonderful book. It’s 686 pages, including the index. It all explores how our modern understanding of physics is our modern understanding of geometry. On page 465 it offers this:

The Atiyah-Singer index theorem must be considered a high point of geometrical analysis of the twentieth century, but is far too complicated to be considered in this book.

I know when I’m licked. Let me attempt to look at one of the people behind this theorem instead.

The Riemann Hypothesis is about where to find the roots of a particular infinite series. It’s been out there, waiting for a solution, for a century and a half. There are many interesting results which we would know to be true if the Riemann Hypothesis is true. In 2018, Michael Atiyah declared that he had a proof. And, more, an amazing proof, a short proof. Albeit one that depended on a great deal of background work and careful definitions. The mathematical community was skeptical. It still is. But it did not dismiss outright the idea that he had a solution. It was plausible that Atiyah might solve one of the greatest problems of mathematics in something that fits on a few PowerPoint slides.

So think of a person who commands such respect.

His proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, as best I understand, is not generally accepted. For example, it includes the fine structure constant. This comes from physics. It describes how strongly electrons and photons interact. The most compelling (to us) consequence of the Riemann Hypothesis is in how prime numbers are distributed among the integers. It’s hard to think how photons and prime numbers could relate. But, then, if humans had done all of mathematics without noticing geometry, we would know there is something interesting about π. Differential equations, if nothing else, would turn up this number. We happened to discover π in the real world first too. If it were not familiar for so long, would we think there should be any commonality between differential equations and circles?

I do not mean to say Atiyah is right and his critics wrong. I’m no judge of the matter at all. What is interesting is that one could imagine a link between a pure number-theory matter like the Riemann hypothesis and a physical matter like the fine structure constant. It’s not surprising that mathematicians should be interested in physics, or vice-versa. Atiyah’s work was particularly important. Much of his work, from the late 70s through the 80s, was in gauge theory. This subject lies under much of modern quantum mechanics. It’s born of the recognition of symmetries, group operations that you can do on a field, such as the electromagnetic field.

In a sequence of papers Atiyah, with other authors, sorted out particular cases of how magnetic monopoles and instantons behave. Magnetic monopoles may sound familiar, even though no one has ever seen one. These are magnetic points, an isolated north or a south pole without its opposite partner. We can understand well how they would act without worrying about whether they exist. Instantons are more esoteric; I don’t remember encountering the term before starting my reading for this essay. I believe I did, encountering the technique as a way to describe the transitions between one quantum state and another. Perhaps the name failed to stick. I can see where there are few examples you could give an undergraduate physics major. And it turns out that monopoles appear as solutions to some problems involving instantons.

This was, for Atiyah, later work. It arose, in part, from bringing the tools of index theory to nonlinear partial differential equations. This index theory is the thing that got us the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem too complicated to explain in 686 pages. Index theory, here, studies questions like “what can we know about a differential equation without solving it?” Solving a differential equation would tell us almost everything we’d like to know, yes. But it’s also quite hard. Index theory can tell us useful things like: is there a solution? Is there more than one? How many? And it does this through topological invariants. A topological invariant is a trait like, for example, the number of holes that go through a solid object. These things are indifferent to operations like moving the object, or rotating it, or reflecting it. In the language of group theory, they are invariant under a symmetry.

It’s startling to think a question like “is there a solution to this differential equation” has connections to what we know about shapes. This shows some of the power of recasting problems as geometry questions. From the late 50s through the mid-70s, Atiyah was a key person working in a topic that is about shapes. We know it as K-theory. The “K” from the German Klasse, here. It’s about groups, in the abstract-algebra sense; the things in the groups are themselves classes of isomorphisms. Michael Atiyah and Friedrich Hirzebruch defined this sort of group for a topological space in 1959. And this gave definition to topological K-theory. This is again abstract stuff. Frankel’s book doesn’t even mention it. It explores what we can know about shapes from the tangents to the shapes.

And it leads into cobordism, also called bordism. This is about what you can know about shapes which could be represented as cross-sections of a higher-dimension shape. The iconic, and delightfully named, shape here is the pair of pants. In three dimensions this shape is a simple cartoon of what it’s named. On the one end, it’s a circle. On the other end, it’s two circles. In between, it’s a continuous surface. Imagine the cross-sections, how on separate layers the two circles are closer together. How their shapes distort from a real circle. In one cross-section they come together. They appear as two circles joined at a point. In another, they’re a two-looped figure. In another, a smoother circle. Knowing that Atiyah came from these questions may make his future work seem more motivated.

But how does one come to think of the mathematics of imaginary pants? Many ways. Atiyah’s path came from his first research specialty, which was algebraic geometry. This was his work through much of the 1950s. Algebraic geometry is about the kinds of geometric problems you get from studying algebra problems. Algebra here means the abstract stuff, although it does touch on the algebra from high school. You might, for example, do work on the roots of a polynomial, or a comfortable enough equation like x^2 + y^2 = 1 . Atiyah had started — as an undergraduate — working on projective geometries. This is what one curve looks like projected onto a different surface. This moved into elliptic curves and into particular kinds of transformations on surfaces. And algebraic geometry has proved important in number theory. You might remember that the Wiles-Taylor proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem depended on elliptic curves. Some work on the Riemann hypothesis is built on algebraic topology.

(I would like to trace things farther back. But the public record of Atiyah’s work doesn’t offer hints. I can find amusing notes like his father asserting he knew he’d be a mathematician. He was quite good at changing local currency into foreign currency, making a profit on the deal.)

It’s possible to imagine this clear line in Atiyah’s career, and why his last works might have been on the Riemann hypothesis. That’s too pat an assertion. The more interesting thing is that Atiyah had several recognizable phases and did iconic work in each of them. There is a cliche that mathematicians do their best work before they are 40 years old. And, it happens, Atiyah did earn a Fields Medal, given to mathematicians for the work done before they are 40 years old. But I believe this cliche represents a misreading of biographies. I suspect that first-rate work is done when a well-prepared mind looks fresh at a new problem. A mathematician is likely to have these traits line up early in the career. Grad school demands the deep focus on a particular problem. Getting out of grad school lets one bring this deep knowledge to fresh questions.

It is easy, in a career, to keep studying problems one has already had great success in, for good reason and with good results. It tends not to keep producing revolutionary results. Atiyah was able — by chance or design I can’t tell — to several times venture into a new field. The new field was one that his earlier work prepared him for, yes. But it posed new questions about novel topics. And this creative, well-trained mind focusing on new questions produced great work. And this is one way to be credible when one announces a proof of the Riemann hypothesis.


Here is something I could not find a clear way to fit into this essay. Atiyah recorded some comments about his life for the Web of Stories site. These are biographical and do not get into his mathematics at all. Much of it is about his life as child of British and Lebanese parents and how that affected his schooling. One that stood out to me was about his peers at Manchester Grammar School, several of whom he rated as better students than he was. Being a good student is not tightly related to being a successful academic. Particularly as so much of a career depends on chance, on opportunities happening to be open when one is ready to take them. It would be remarkable if there wre three people of greater talent than Atiyah who happened to be in the same school at the same time. It’s not unthinkable, though, and we may wonder what we can do to give people the chance to do what they are good in. (I admit this assumes that one finds doing what one is good in particularly satisfying or fulfilling.) In looking at any remarkable talent it’s fair to ask how much of their exceptional nature is that they had a chance to excel.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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