FOM: G.-C. Rota's Indiscretions

Anatoly Vorobey mellon at
Wed Nov 18 13:53:52 EST 1998

You, Stephen G Simpson, were spotted writing this on Wed, Nov 18, 1998 at 09:30:24AM -0500:
> There are many topics to pursue.
> 1. We could discuss Rota's suggestion that there is need for a
>    rigorous analysis of notions such as definitiveness of a proof, the
>    word `as' or `qua', etc.  Maybe this could lead to something of
>    interest for f.o.m.

I was surprised that Rota, in a discussion of Ulam's suggestion that 
understanding the word 'as' is central to understanding human mind, 
does not acknowledge or even mention semiotics. Indeed all of semiotics,
and especially its "Peircean" (as distinguished from the "Saussurean")
branch, can be viewed as one grand attempt to analyze, formalize and
in other ways study the nature of signification, or the mysterious
word 'as'. 

> 2. What do you think of Rota's idea that mathematicians should never
>    criticize each other in the hearing of outsiders?  I have said that
>    this rule would inhibit high intellectual standards.  What do you
>    say?

The key word, as I understand, is "outsiders". I.e. critique should
allowed and perhaps even encouraged, but inside the community ("inside
the community" may still allow "in an open fashion").

Recall the internal battles inside the physical community related to 
the problem of funding the Superconducting Super Collider. Quite a lot
of physicists not related to elementary particles research felt
quite bitter due to the fact that so much money was channeled to
a research program with no discernible hopes of practically useful
results. Regardless of the outcome, I would argue that the calamity
resulted in dimishing general public's appreciation of physical research.

A piece of scathing criticism of a particular field in physics that is
published in Phys.Rev. is very different in its goals and impact from 
a similar article in _Physics Today_ or _The Scientific American_.

Anatoly Vorobey,
mellon at
"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly" - G.K.Chesterton

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