Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Lance Fortnow recently devoted a post to The Bourbaki Lecture. Reading his post, reminded me that I had in mind of scribbling a couple of lines on the book Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians by Maurice Mashaal, Pour la Science - AMS, 2006, 168 pp. I came across that book while looking for another one at the university library, and decided to borrow it. I am glad I did!

For one, I did not know that André Weil (1906-1998) introduced the symbol for the empty set that we now universally use. (A whole issue of the Notices of the AMS is devoted to Weil.) Nor did I know that Boubarki coined the terms injection, surjection and bijection, and invented the notion of filter. Not to mention the striking similarity between André Weil and Eugenio Moggi! (Eugenio, I hope that you don't mind me mentioning this!)

More seriously, I really enjoyed reading that book, and I warmly recommend it. It tells what was good, and what was bad, with Bourbaki and its view of mathematics. It is also full of eminently quotable sentences from the Bourbaki members. Examples?

"You can't do good work in applied mathematics until you can do good work in pure mathematics." (Jean Dieudonné (1906-1992), cited on p. 119)

"[...] logic is the mathematician's hygiene, but it does not provide his meals. The big problems constitute the daily bread on which he lives." (André Weil in The Future of Mathematics, 1948) Shame on you Weil!

The closing paragraph of the book is poignant:

"Despite some mistakes, Bourbaki did add a little to the "honour of the human spirit." In an era when sports and money are such great idols of civilization, this is no small virtue."

Indeed, not to mention that the members of Bourbaki have included some of the greatest mathematical minds of the last century.

Great minds can also make great mistakes (for instance, Bourbaki's disdain of probability theory had a very negative effect on French work in that very important area of mathematics, and Bourbaki was very dogmatic in his view of mathematics), and one of the virtues of the book is that these are not swept under the carpet. Read it, and form your own opinion on this non-existent, and most prolific mathematician.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Change of Dean

At a meeting with the staff members of the School of Science and Engineering held yesterday, the new rector, Svafa Grönfeld, announced that the dean of the school, Bjarki Brynjarsson, is stepping down from his position.

A five-person evaluation committee will be formed by early next month, and its first assignment will be to set down criteria for the selection of the new dean for the School. I expect that an advertisement for the position will be published in early March.

Watch this space if you are interested in the job!

Trying to Influence Research Funding in Iceland

Parliamentary elections are coming up in Iceland, and a bunch of scientists are trying to put funding for research on the political agenda. This group blog is an attempt at keeping the discussion of this issue alive. As you can see, most of the posts are encrypted in Icelandic. However, since my knowledge of Icelandic is not what it should be, I use English for my posts on that blog.

In case anybody is interested, I posted an entry entitled More Funding and More Variety! In that post I sing the praise of some types of funding that is available in countries like The Netherlands and Denmark, but not in Iceland. Comments are most welcome.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Too Many People Have Way Too Much Money

Icelandic business is thriving, and Icelandic businessmen are buying companies, football teams, supermarket chains etc. all over the place. There is a new breed of very wealthy people out here, who are not particularly bothered by the fact that, e.g., food is 65% more expensive than the European average here.

I just heard that the director of Samskip, one of the local new rich man, has just turned 50. For his birthday, he had Elton John sing for his guests. Cost: over 100 million ISK (about 1,110,789 euros)! This is one sixth of the annual budget of the Icelandic research council. I estimate that, with that money, I could hire at least 11 visiting professors for a year, changing the face of my department.

Life is not fair.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lack of Funding for Italian Researchers Logic

Not so long ago, I reported with pleasure on a success story for Italian research in logic. Unfortunately, it looks like it is now time for bad news regarding research in logic in Italy.

Over the last few days, I have been reading a sequence of messages posted on the mailing list of the Italian Association for Logic and its Applications (AILA) related to the results of the applications for PRIN projects. (I think that PRIN is an Italian acronym standing for "Projects of National Interest".) The list of PRIN projects funded in the subject area of mathematics and computer science is here. A quick browse through the list gives me the impression that not enough of the funded projects are from computer science. Moreover, the only funded project related to logic in computer science is

OMODEO EugenioUniversità degli Studi di TRIESTE22.680Sviluppo su grande scala di dimostrazioni certificate

(Large scale development of certified proofs. Amount: 22.680 euros.)

One can also make the case that the project

DEGANO PierpaoloUniversità degli Studi di PISA94.500Sistemi e calcoli di ispirazione biologica e loro applicazioni -- BISCA

impacts on logic in computer science, broadly construed. (By the way, well done Pierpaolo!)

Funding for projects in mathematical logic and its relationships to computer science is conspicuously absent, despite the strength of Italian researchers in this area. Albeit the lack of funding will have very negative consequences on logic research in Italy, this is not the only thing that is bothering Italian logicians. From what I gather, all of the projects proposals from logicians received the same one-line evaluation, namely interesting, but marginal, as well as the same numerical score.

I do not know who the reviewers of the projects were, and I know nothing about the quality of the submitted projects. However, I feel that I have to take a firm and public stance against this uniform, general and vague "scientific" evaluation for 50-page long proposals. Would any of us be happy to write a long paper and have it rejected with a one-liner? And can logic research be at all labelled as being marginal?

Logic is the calculus of computer science! Apart from its intrinsic scientific and cultural interest, this fact alone shows that logic research is by no means marginal. In fact, thanks to its close connections with computer science, logic is the most applied branch of mathematics! (This is not just the opinion of your truly. I invite Italian readers --- assuming they exist, of course :-) --- to check out pages 108-109 of the interview with Enrico Giusti in the excellent book Professione Matematico. Note that Giusti is not a logician.)

I hope that the Italian mathematical community does not consider logic a marginal subject, and that, in the future, the evaluation of project proposals will involve expert reviewers from abroad, as it is done essentially everywhere else. This will be a great step forward towards the use of proper peer review in the distribution of the funding available for scientific research, and will increase the transparency of the whole process.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Flurry of Prizes in Maths

It is prize time in the mathematical world. The Wolf Foundation has announced that Harry Furstenberg (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Stephen Smale (University of California, Berkeley) will share the US$100,000 2006-7 Wolf Prize in Mathematics.

The AMS has instead awarded its prizes for 2007. Once more the AMS-MAA-SIAM Morgan Prize for Outstanding Research by an Undergraduate Student went to an MIT student, Daniel Kane. It is humbling experience to see that this BSc student has already about 16 papers under his belt :-(

The February 2007 issue of the Notices is out. It features an interview with Lennart Carleson coauthored by my former Aalborg colleague Martin Raussen, and a beautiful book review Symmetry and the Monster: One of the Greatest Quests of Mathematics--A Book Review by Robert Griess. I liked it so much that I could not resist buying the book today. I might report on the book when I read it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Three Billion Down the Drain?

Last Thursday the Icelandic Minister of Education and the rector of the University of Iceland unveiled a , previously very much secretive, plan aimed at bringing the University of Iceland amongst the top 100 best universities in the world. (Yes, you read that right!)

The heart of the plan is an increase in governmental funding to the University of Iceland amounting to 640 million ISK a year over the next five years (roughly 7 million euro a year). It is not completely clear to me yet what milestones the University of Iceland will have to meet to justify this investment of tax payers money. What is, however, abundantly clear is that the main competitor of the university I am working for right now (Reykjavík University) is much more powerful now than it was only four days ago, provided they will make good use of the extra funding. If previous events are anything to go by, this is very unlikely to happen in computer science unless the CS department at the University of Iceland is forced to hire according to the qualifications of the applicants.

Iceland being what it is, even your truly decided to enter the political arena for a few minutes by writing the following email message:

Subject: Financing Universities and Research

Dear Minister of Education,

It is an excellent idea to increase the level of funding for universities and research in Iceland. It is also a positive step to have some form of financing that is not linked to specific, and often narrow, project work. This is done in many other countries with great benefit to the level and quality of research. It is, however, very unclear at best that donating a large sum of money to HI the way the Ministry did yesterday is the best way to promote international quality research in Iceland.

Financial support should go to those individual researchers, research centres and laboratories where high quality academic research has been performed consistently, irrespective of the university where they are located. Allocation of resources should be made based on merit, as established by fair and objective peer review. Centuries of scientific work have shown that this is the best, if not the only, way to ensure that whatever support is available be used in the best possible way.

By way of analogy, I invite you to consider the choice of an investment fund where to invest some of your savings. Before choosing one, you would most likely examine the interests that specific funds have guaranteed their customers over the last few years. Why are political decisions on how to invest in research not based on the same principles?

Sincerely Yours,

Luca Aceto

Do I expect to receive any answer? Certainly not, but, as present head of the CS department at Reykjavík University, I felt like I had to write to the Minister on behalf of my colleagues.

I'll write a post with my first views on the HoD job over the next few days. Not surprisingly, the executive summary will be that the job is a huge time sink :-(

Friday, January 12, 2007

Concurrency Column for February 2007

Earlier this week, I posted the concurrency column for the February issue of the Bulletin of the EATCS. This column will be devoted to a paper entitled Characteristic Formulae: From Automata to Logic co-authored by Anna Ingolfsdottir and me.

The piece is loosely based on three posts I wrote for this blog. (Parts 1, 2 and 3.) This is the first time that I use this blog as a a sort of scratchpad while planning the writing of a paper. I think that I'll experiment with this use of the blog again in the future---assuming that I have anything at all to write about, that is.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Quality of Life of Researchers in Italy

Not so long ago, I wrote a post on research in Italy. In that post, I criticized the lack of sensibility of Italian politicians towards science and basic research, and praised Italian researchers for being very active in my field and in TCS as a whole despite the lack of support they are faced with.

I just read an article in La Repubblica that adds fuel to the fire. (The article is in Italian.) According to a report commissioned by the trade union Nidil Cgil, Italian researchers earn on average between 800 and 1.200 euro per month before taxes. Moreover 31% of the people interviewed by the report writers earns less than 800 euro per month after taxes. It is not surprising to read that those who do not have permanent positions yet are not optimistic about their futures. About 25% of the people who do not have a permanent position are over 35 years old, and half of those are over 40. (At this age, in most other countries other you have a tenured position of some sort or you have found a different type of job altogether.) This uncertainty about the future has obvious repercussions on the quality of life, and on family planning. It turns out that 82% of the interviewees do not have children.

How can this be at all good for my own country? And why doesn't Italian society see that it is undermining its own future by not supporting the researchers who work in Italy? Can Italy ever attract foreign researchers by offering those wages? Of course, money is not everything, but it does help, and is necessary to lead a decent life. Surprise, surprise: researchers are fully fledged human beings, with human needs and desires!

Post Scriptum: The article I am refererring to also has statistics regarding the long working hours of researchers. I chose not to focus on those statistics at all here because, in my modest experience, this is the norm, rather than the exception, throughout. My present dean often tells me that "academic freedom is not the freedom of doing nothing", to which I always reply that academics have often much longer working hours than many other people.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Back to the Future

The new year is three days old, I have been head of department for two, and I have been thinking about doing a 2006 rewind, following the tradition of The Wire, one of my favourite music magazines despite the fact that I stopped subscribing to it last summer after about 15 years. However, the more I thought about it, the less I felt I had anything meaningful to say about concurrency theory in 2006. My colleagues produced several excellent papers, and a look at the proceedings of conferences like CONCUR 2006, FSTTCS 2006, ICALP 2006, and LICS 2006 will suffice to get an idea of some of the best work done last year.

Others have done a great "2006 rewind" for complexity theory and mathematics. (From the latter blog, I encourage you to read the opinions on category theory. Savour John Baez's one liner `I hope most mathematicians continue to fear and despise category theory, so I can continue to maintain a certain advantage over them.')

I encourage all of us to learn from Lance Fortnow's advice on how to deliver a job talk. That piece of advice, and the comments to the post, apply to any talk, not just our job talks.

Finally, I hope that during this year I'll follow the following piece of advice from Allan Bay, an Italian cook and food writer, whose sixth piece of advice in Cuochi Si Diventa (one of my favourite cookbooks) reads:

Cook with calm; haste and anxiety are your worst advisors. If you know you have little time, opt for a quick recipe, one that you can cook as well as you can in the little time you have at your disposal. This virtue is useful well beyond your kitchen....

Indeed, haste and anxiety are usually not conducive to good research work either. (The advice we give others is the advice we ourselves need.)

Hopefully 2007 will be a great year for concurrency theory, ICE-TCS, all of my collaborators and friends, and, why not, a decently productive one for me too. I wish that I could begin by attending this talk :-)