The final interview (*cry*) in the Defining topology through interviews series is with Jeremy Mann, who is a PhD student in mathematics at the University of Notre Dame, studying geometry and topology.
1. What would your own personal description of “topology” be?
Topology studies features we call “qualitative”: ones that don’t change if the system is gently* disturbed. In some sense, we created topology in order to give precise answers to qualitative questions. In my day to day life, I reason qualitatively. I rarely wonder “Will the temperature outside be greater than 23 degrees?” I ask: “Is it warm outside?” I would call the first question quantitative, and my second one topological. In other words, topology is created to give precise answers to the types of questions we, as humans, are naturally interested in.
* What one means by “gently” depends enormously on the context, and one has a lot of freedom in choosing what that means. For these reasons, despite being wonderfully vivid, topology is at times unavoidably abstract.
2. What do you say when trying to explain your work to non-mathematicians?
I fudge the details and I lie. If a careful mathematician were listening, they might interject with a few “well, actually—”s. But the details can obscure content, and people enjoy fiction, so I try not to lose sleep over it. That being said, I might tell a story like this:
By the age of three, I could pick two peaches out of a bag without knowing the first thing about the symbol “2.” A number was something like a bunch of stuff contained within a box. A number could bounce around and bruise. I could hold it in my hands.
If I had a sack of plums and a sack of peaches, I could add them together by pouring them both into a bigger sack.
But these terms didn’t help me add the grains of sand in a bucket, or the stars spread before my eyes. So I dropped this way of adding, in favor of an algebra with lots of symbols like “2,” and “376,” and eventually “x.”
Since then, I’ve made another shift. These days, my conceptualization of arithmetic is a lot closer to a child’s. This approach has many names, but my favorite is Factorization Algebras. I see a number as a collection of objects contained within a region of space.
But now, my numbers can interact. Symbols are no longer rich enough to capture their structure. Sometimes my numbers feel like exotic creatures. They can circle each other suspiciously.
Symbols see this as “2=2=2=2,” but this picture shows us there’s a lot more going on.
“1 + 1 = 2”.
Two numbers can be enemies. When I add them together, they remove each other from existence. “1 + (-1) = 0”. Sometimes, I play this in reverse, watching two enemies spontaneously born from empty tranquility.
I guess I’m interested in more than just writing down the final answer. I want to see their costumes. I want to know how they come together. I want to feel the content in their choreography. My work helps me do this.
3. How does your work relate, if at all, to the Nobel prize work?
The Nobel Prize was awarded for insights into the behavior of certain forms of matter at very low energy, where their behavior becomes “topological.” Strictly speaking, the structures I consider are not “topological” — despite “being a topologist,” my work does in fact know the difference between a coffee cup and a donut. It’s much higher-energy.*
Many physicists are interested in a material’s low energy behavior because these conditions contain a huge amount of information about a material’s possible phases. This even includes more “exotic” phases of matter, some with potential applications to quantum computers.
I’d like to point out the following: often, “exotic” means “outside of one’s comfort zone.” So, when physicists say “exotic topological phases of matter,” I suspect they are expressing how the low energy behaviors of certain materials are outside the comfort of zone of many members of the physics (and mathematics) community. This “exotic” behavior defies common intuition. However, when a material behaves in this manner, to a topologist, it enters very familiar territory. The topological is not exotic to a topologist.
** hotter, but certainly not sexier.