Jeff Weeks Interview by Dr. Sarah

The quest to understand the precise geometry and shape of our universe began thousands of years ago, when mathematicians and astronomers used mathematical models to try and explain their observations. Jeff Weeks is a freelance mathematician who has been instrumental in modern efforts to model the universe. He is a world-renowned mathematician who has received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship award for his work. While there seem to be some irregularities in the WMAP and Planck data that throw the conflicting analyses and conclusions into doubt, there is hope that Jeff Weeks and others will continue to develop new models and methods so that one day we can determine the shape of space.

As part of HW on ASULearn, you will write down two items that you found interesting, disagreed with, had a question on, or wished had been done as related to the following:

  1. First watch this five-minute video of Jeff Weeks speaking about the shape of space. You need to be logged into your ASU account to view this.
  2. Next read through:

    What influences led you to become a mathematician?

    When he was in high school a career as a mathematician was not something he planned on, but reading Abbot's Flatland during his senior year was a turning point: I spent about two weeks thinking really hard about four-dimensional space, and after those two weeks of intense effort, almost in a flash I could finally "see" it. This glimpse into a new world made a huge impression on me. I think that's what hooked me on mathematics, and on geometry in particular. As an undergraduate, though, I bounced back and forth between math and physics. In fact, I still do. I love the connections between pure mathematics and the physical world. A real joy.

    Why did you become a mathematician?

    For the joy of exploring beautiful new worlds. The combination of beauty and simplicity exceeds anything you'll find in everyday life. For example, as part of the current research in cosmic topology, I've been working on the hypersphere recently. The constructions (Clifford parallels, collapsing the hypersphere to a regular sphere, etc.) are wonderfully simple and symmetrical, yet remain hidden until we make the effort to go have a look. That's part of the joy of mathematics -- you might struggle with something for months, but then when you "get it" it's all so simple and obvious.

    Did you have support from family and society?

    On the one hand, I don't think my parents ever grasped why I wanted to go into math (even when I was applying to graduate school my dad sat down with me and earnestly and kindly suggested that I might want to consider business school as an alternative). On the other hand, my parents fully supported my decisions and encouraged me at every step of the way. Society too has been supportive. I've taken a non-standard path, but there's always been a way to make things work. [After several years of teaching undergraduate mathematics, he resigned to care for his newborn son, and continued his research as a freelance mathematician.] Clearly society can't (and shouldn't be expected to) fund an unlimited number of mathematicians working on ever more arcane questions, but nevertheless people do have an interest in keeping mathematics alive and active. Looking across the span of human history, this is a great time to be a mathematician.

    What kind of barriers did you face while becoming a mathematician?

    Graduate school. The pressure took all the joy out of it, and under those circumstances it was hard to make progress. I didn't start enjoying mathematical research until after I got my Ph.D.

    Are there any diversity issues in your experiences?

    No, not really. My graduate school class was unusual for its small size (five people) and for its gender composition (40% female, 60% male). In an international sense mathematics is extremely diverse, with people from a broad range of cultures sharing a common mathematical culture. Domestically, though, mathematics seems to be in decline, regardless of race or gender. The U.S. now relies overwhelmingly on foreigners both for mathematically skilled positions in industry and for graduate students in pure math. Sooner or later the U.S. will have to rethink its educational system. As an independent mathematician I've had few students, but I did once serve as a "de facto mentor" for a woman's undergraduate thesis. She did a super job, went on to graduate school, and is now a tenured math professor. I don't really see this as a "diversity issue", though. She did the same project a male student would have done. So in that sense mathematics is pretty gender-neutral. It's the social environment where things get messy, but that seems to vary enormously, from departments where gender isn't an issue to other departments that openly discourage women students and faculty.

    Mathematical Style

    Jeff Weeks is a visual learner: Everything I do I see as pictures. For me, the mental images are totally convincing. Once I can see in my mind how something works, then writing out a proof is simply a matter of recording what I see.

    Describe the process of doing mathematics.

    The first question, of course, is where do the problems come from. In cosmic topology, the problems arise from observational data. One notices anomalies in our observations of the universe, and seeks a topological explanation. At the very beginning of a project, one turns over various possibilities in one's mind, in effect sifting through one's experience hoping to find some ideas that might explain the phenomenon at hand. Once a possible line of inquiry is found, then...

    I like to start with the absolutely simplest case that isn't totally trivial. For example, if a construction involves a polynomial, I'll start with a quadratic or even a line if I can get away with it. I'll trace the simple case through and see its consequences. On a first pass, the answers are often more complicated than I'd like them to be. So it's important not to rush at this stage. Even if a given approach reaches the goal I have in mind, if it's too messy I'll spend a few days trying to understand more deeply what's going on, in hopes of finding a simpler proof or a more enlightening point of view. This is particularly true of calculations -- a calculation can prove that something is true without telling you *why* it's true. It's worth taking the time early on to understand the reasons for the results one sees. Once everything is clear for the easy cases, it's usually not much harder to do the general case.

    How do you get the flashes of insight that you need to do research?

    If I could tell you that, I'd be a far more productive mathematician. :-) Seriously, for me the key is to be well-rested, unrushed and undistracted. I can't make real progress when my e-mail queue is full and deadlines loom. Progress is best when I've had a good long night's sleep, the house is empty and quiet, and I can focus totally on the problem at hand.

    Math is discovered, not invented. For me there is no doubt. As you explore, you work your way through a lot of "false understandings" where things don't quite come together. Then, all of a sudden, things start falling into place. That's the moment you realize you're onto something. You know (without proof of course) that all the remaining details are going to fall into place as well, and 90% of the time they do. It's very much an experience of discovering something that's already there. We find these things, we don't invent them.

    I find that a lot of progress takes place in my subconscious. That is, I can go to bed totally confused about a question and wake up with an idea. Similarly, I might be, say, out for a bike ride and find an idea just pops into my head, without my having been aware that I was even thinking about the problem. (Your students should understand, though, that they can't expect an idea to literally come from nowhere -- they have to immerse themselves in the question first!)

The other part of the hw is the themes review. Turn in your responses on ASULearn