Thursday, May 01, 2003

History's Loss/Mathematics' Gain

Some excitement at Schloss Dagstuhl this week. Localized high winds tore the metal plating off the roof of much of the new building Wednesday evening. Much of that roof sits in the courtyard--quite a sight. The good news is no one was injured and property damage, besides the roof, was minimal. A few of us had to switch rooms but the workshop goes on.

Let me finish off this centennial week with a story of Kolmogorov that I have heard from different sources so some variation of this story is likely true. Kolmogorov initially wanted to be an historian. He looked at the question as to whether taxes in Russia in the middle-ages were collected at the house level or at the village level. He analyzed tax data and showed that that data had a much simpler description if taxes were collected at the village level. (You can see the seeds of Kolmogorov complexity here). He presented these results to the history faculty to great applause. Asking them whether he could publish such a paper he was told, "You only have one proof. You cannot publish in a history journal without at least two more proofs of your hypothesis." And so Kolmogorov left history for a field where one proof suffices.

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