'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Story Of A Conjecture

Note: 'Egregious' is an interesting word. From an archaic "distinguished", its meaning has somehow evolved into "conspicuously bad". In the source Latin, the word still means 'outstanding' or 'remarkable'.

As some of my readers would know, Ramana Rao and I formulated a Mathematical conjecture way back in 2006. Over the years, while the conjecture itself has acquired a bit of a life of its own among Mathematicians (the more intrepid/jobless among my readers may google with "nandakumar ramana rao conjecture"), our own serious attempt (published in late 2008 at arxiv) to achieve a partial proof has almost totally failed to attract serious expert attention.

A solid Mathematician told me: "the problem is *rigor*. If you want real mathematicians to read your writeup on the problem, you must write it rigorously. What you have produced is quite an unreadable chaos of English"

My own conception of rigor is that it resides in the abstract world of arguments and logic, not in the notation and formalism. So, whether our article is rigorous or not depends only on the *truth* of our arguments and how they fit together, not in the language in which they are couched (for example, the above-mentioned Mathematician remarked he would like to see more epsilons and deltas, and I don't care too much about such fashions).

Recently, I discovered the following: Gauss, the all-time great Mathematician, was not much given to hype and hyperbole; but he was so impressed by one of his own discoveries that he named it 'theorema egregium' (there is a Wiki article on it)!

That gave me an idea: as a tribute of sorts to Gauss, I decided to christen our own problem with a suitably picturesque adjective. And there was one real contender: 'kitogiro'.

I had encountered this word a couple of years ago in a joke mail on software slang in Bangalore Kannada: here is the original source:

I checked with a local expert and he said: kitogiro/kittogiro/kithogiro means "absolutely worthless" in Kannada.

The word has a surprisingly authentic Japanese feel ('komogeto maru', 'ikkiru', 'ishiguro'...). And there are some real famous Mathematical conjectures from Japan, the most famous being the 'Taniyama-Shimura' one. The 'Kitogiro Conjecture'- it sounded cool!

Now, if someone were to think, by choosing a Jap-sounding name, I am being disloyal to our Indian roots, there is a great precedent in Mathematics: a troop of French mathematicians gave themselves the pseudo-Hungarian (or faux Greek?) pseudonym: 'Nicolas Bourbaki'.

A strong Russian variant 'Kitogirov' emerged. Again, the 'feel' was solid and authentic. Kitaigorodski, Kolmogorov,... there are any number of similar-sounding Ruski names with unimpeachable Academic pedigree.

The dilemma was resolved with a coin toss; Japan won. To mark the occasion, I inserted into my (soon to be released) book, 'The Loop', a reference to the 'Kitogiro conjecture'.

Now, I want to talk a bit more about how this naming business made me think of the dreaded r-word again: Quite pleased with 'Kitogiro', I wrote to a Kannadiga Physicist/Mathematician(*) I know very well (he really knows his Math, and can teach a thing or three about rigor to most folks) about the naming of the conjecture. I expected a reply on the lines of "Hilarious!". And what I got was the puzzling: "What does Kitogiro mean? Is it intended to be an allusion or something?"

Hiding my confusion (and disappointment) I wrote back: "hey, I thought kitogiro is a Kannada word!"

Pat came the reply: "Never heard it!"

Self: "Hello, I was told, it means 'absolutely worthless' in Kannada!"

Him: "Oh, that?! The actual phrase is 'kettu hogira' and it means spoilt, worn out...yes. Maybe in Bangalore slang, it may sound ..."

Now, there goes a stickler for rigor!

Question: Who are the two communities which use the word 'rigor' all the time?
Answer: Mathematicians and Forensic experts (as in 'rigor mortis').

Sorry for the groaner!

Note: Being Malayali, I did fleetingly consider the Malayalam word 'Tallippoli' which means almost the same as the Kannada 'kitogiro'. This word too is sort of international, sounding like the Turkish 'Gallipoli'. I have a sneaking suspicion that 'Tallipoli', though it can be given a pure Mallu derivation, was actually coined in the wake of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of the first World War. To give another word of similar pedigree, the rural Mallu slang word 'yamandan' meaning 'big and powerful' or 'terrible' is said to derive from the name of 'Emden', the German warship of World War I which came all the way to our shores and sensationally shelled Madras (although the malefic planet(?) 'Yamakantaka' too has some claims)!

Note on above Note: A major expert, who has done some serious work on our problem has recently attributed it (on at least two separate occasions) to 'Nandakumar and Ramanda Rao' (again, I call google to witness!). When I reported this - including the misspelling of Ramana as Ramanda - to my Old Man, he ramarked: "That sounds like 'Yamanda Rao'!". Come to think of it, that would have been quite apt; 'yamandan' sits well on my fellow-traveller - tall and powerful, he used to be a fiery and feared fast bowler and had (and still has) a great baritone voice to boot.


(*) 'Mathematican' would be a much more accurate description of the gentleman than 'Mathematician'. But I would rather not press the point - he might object on grounds of ... rigor, saying 'mathematican' is not listed in any dictionary.


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