The Out­rage In­dus­try

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Jim John­stone


We can work around ig­no­rance. We can even work around the truth. In spite of built-in de­fences, ad­mit you’ve been abu­sive, and the abused will lift the statute of lim­i­ta­tions on sin. Or bet­ter yet, kneel in front of a jury of your peers: tal­is­man; lynch mob; lash­ing tail. A whip pum­melling screens un­til they fill with TV snow. You can al­most switch the chan­nel, but the mir­ror wall is black light. Let me tell you more . . . no, let me tell you that the more we talk, the more I’m con­vinced I’m right.

Frenkel, though Lang­lands in­sists that’s not the case—he’s al­ways wanted to write some­thing in Russian, he says, and his re­tire­ment had fi­nally fur­nished him with the op­por­tu­nity to do so. If Lang­lands’s new work is solid, un­der­stood by enough peo­ple, and adapted into a gen­er­al­iza­tion, it could be “rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” says Ju­lia Gor­don, a math­e­mati­cian work­ing at UBC. By sug­gest­ing ideas that are re­lated to the orig­i­nal Lang­lands Pro­gram, Lang­lands “is try­ing to bring us back down to earth,” she says. His re­cent for­mu­la­tions likely won’t re­place the cur­rent geo­met­ric the­ory—that one is “here to stay,” Arthur says—but it could be­come the ba­sis for a new line of study with dif­fer­ent po­ten­tial dis­cov­er­ies. Frenkel re­ceived the com­plete pa­per in April, and in June, he emailed Lang­lands with a few clar­i­fy­ing ques­tions. Lang­lands didn’t an­swer them; he just told Frenkel to read the pa­per again and pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to a line on page fifty-nine. “I was tired,” Lang­lands says. “[Frenkel] didn’t seem to be tak­ing ac­count of the es­sen­tial step, the turn­ing point.” Months later, Frenkel is “a lit­tle bit per­plexed,” he says. “Lang­lands is my hero— I don’t want to crit­i­cize him.” But he’s still dis­ap­pointed by Lang­lands’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the geo­met­ric and phys­i­cal pro­grams as spec­u­la­tive and un­con­vinc­ing—pos­si­bly the harsh­est in­sult one can make in the realm of math­e­mat­i­cal re­search. Frenkel’s read­ing of the Russian pa­per can’t be sep­a­rated from what was said that day in Oslo; he re­torts that Lang­lands’s lat­est work is “way less rig­or­ous than what the geo­met­ric the­ory has pro­duced in the last thirty years.” In late Au­gust, I vis­ited Lang­lands in Mon­treal, in a small apart­ment that he owns with his wife, Char­lotte Lang­lands, a sculp­tor. The day be­fore, he had fin­ished pre­par­ing for a lec­ture that he would be pre­sent­ing in Turkey (in Turkish). Now that his Russian pa­per is pub­lished, Lang­lands says—though he has said this be­fore—he is ready to stop work­ing on math­e­mat­ics and “go to other, more agree­able, things.” The day we met, he had spent his first free morn­ing in years read­ing a trav­el­ogue by the nine­teenth-cen­tury Ger­man writer Theodor Fon­tane (in its orig­i­nal Ger­man). Hav­ing had time to rest and visit his fam­ily in Bri­tish Columbia, Lang­lands was more en­er­getic and con­ver­sa­tional than he had been in Oslo a few months ear­lier — and a lit­tle more for­giv­ing of his col­leagues. He ad­mit­ted he should prob­a­bly have been more invit­ing of Frenkel’s ques­tions. In Novem­ber, the Nor­we­gian Academy of Sci­ence and Let­ters is co-host­ing the Abel Con­fer­ence in Min­nesota, a three-day “math­e­mat­i­cal cel­e­bra­tion of Robert P. Lang­lands.” Lang­lands and Frenkel will both be in at­ten­dance. At the con­fer­ence, a lec­ture will be pre­sented ex­plain­ing the ba­sic premise of Lang­lands’s Russian pa­per and how it dif­fers from the cur­rent geo­met­ric Lang­lands Pro­gram. Frenkel will be the one de­liv­er­ing it.

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