Quick note: Yau vs New Yorker

You have probably noticed that I have a particular interest in the Yau Shing-tong vs Beida controversy. A while earlier I found a New Yorker article (via ESWN, the cartoon is shown here) about the newest Field Medalist Perelman, the Poincare conjecture, and Prof Yau. The article was quite informative, except that it was highly ignorant of the research environment in China, or how research was conducted in general, and the whole Yau Shing-tong vs Peking University/Tian Gang controversy. I wondered if the reporters had talked to Yau at all.

It turned out that they did talk to Yau and communicated with him for some length, and basically ignored the story from his side (or mostly other knowledgeable poeple). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Professor Yau is preparing for taking legal action against the New Yorker this week. (via inmedia). Yau's rebuttal echoes my first reaction when I read the New Yorker report, I am pretty sure Yau would win this one. If that is the case, New Yorker may have to donate a few million dollars to a mathematics institute in New York or in China.

Update (Sep 23):
1) commentator LW pointed to a report that New Yorker stands by its story, looks like that leaves Yau with no other option than filing a law suit.
2) (Sep 24) AMS's account of Poincare conjecture (PDF)
3) Yau's lecture in Beijing about Poincare conjecture
4) Scientific American points to Scott Aaronson's blog and new post
5) Testaments of other mathematics professors (from comments on Aaronson's blog)
  • a Clarification from MIT mathematician Dan Stroock:

    I, like several others whom Sylvia Nasar interviewed, am shocked and angered by the article which she and Gruber wrote for the New Yorker. Having seen Yau in action during his June conference on string theory, Nasar led me to believe that she was fascinated by S-T Yau and asked me my opinion about his activities. I told her that I greatly admire Yau's efforts to support young Chinese mathematicians and to break down the ossified power structure in the Chinese academic establishment. I then told her that I sometimes have doubts about his methodology. In particular, I told her that, at least to my ears, Yau weakens his case and lays himself open to his enemies by sounding too self-promoting.
    As it appears in her article, she has purposefully distorted my statement and made it unforgivably misleading. Like the rest of us, Yau has his faults, but, unlike most of us, his virtues outweigh his faults. Unfortunately, Nasar used my statement to bolster her case that the opposite is true, and for this I cannot forgive her.
  • State University of New York at Stony Brook professor Michael Anderson's email to Yao:
    Dear Yau,
    I am furious, and completely shocked, at what Sylvia Nasar wrote. Her quote of me is completely wrong and baseless. There are other factual mistakes in the article, in addition to those you pointed out. I have left her phone and email messages this evening and hope to speak to her tomorrow at the latest to clear this up. I want her to remove this statement completely from the article. It serves no purpose and contains no factual information; I view it as stupid gossip unworthy of a paper like the New Yorker. At the moment, the print version has not appeared and so it might be possible to fix this still. I spent several hours with S. Nasar on the phone talking about Perelman, Poincare, etc but it seems I was too naive (and I'm now disgusted) in believing this journalist would report factually.
    I regret very much this quote falsely attributed to me and will do what
    ever I can to have it removed. I will keep you informed as I know more.
    Yours, Michael
  • Michael Anderson's further announcement:
    Many of you have probably seen the New Yorker article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber on Perelman and the Poincare conjecture. In many respects, its very interesting and a pleasure to read. However, it contains a number of inaccuracies and downright errors. I spent several hours talking with Sylvia Nasar trying to dissuade her from incorporating the Tian-Yau fights into the article, since it was completely irrelevant and I didn't see the point of dragging readers through the mud. Obviously I was not successful.
    The quote attributed to me on Yau is completely inaccurate and distorted from some remarks I made to her in a quite different context; I made it explicit to her that the remarks I was making in that context were purely speculative and had no basis in fact. I did not give her my permission to quote me on this, even with the qualification of speculation. There are other inaccuracies about Stony Brook. One for instance is the implication that Tian at MIT was the first to invite Perelman to the US to give talks. This is of course false - we at Stony Brook were the first to do so. I stressed in my talks with her the role Stony Brook played, yet she focusses on the (single) talk Grisha gave at Princeton, listing a collection of eminent mathematicians, none of whom is a geometer/topologist.
    I was not given an opportunity to set the record straight with the New Yorker before publication; this was partly because I was travelling in Europe at the time this happened, and there was a rush to publish; the publication date is the same as the announcement date of the Fields Medals I think. I was not sent an advance copy of the article for checking. I spoke with Sylvia on the phone this morning, to no avail. I've also had some email correspondence with Yau on the matter over the last day. I apologized to him and expressed my anger and frustration about what was done, confirming to him the quote attributed to me is false and baseless. The email to Yau is now already posted on a Chinese blog site!).
    I've learned my lesson on dealing with the media the hard and sour way and am still considering what path to pursue to try to rectify the situation, to the extent still possible.
  • Princeton Professor Joe Kohn's email to Yao:
    Dear Yau,
    I learned from Andreea that you were very hurt by my remarks quoted in the New Yorker. I did not mean to hurt you. You are universally recognizd as one of the foremost mathematicians of our times, which explains my first remark. I know how deeply you care about Chinese mathematics and therefore I assume that you would like to be as effective as possible in your leadership of the Chinese mathematical community - and this explains my second remark.
    Best regards,



LW said...

Sun Bin,
First of all, Yau has not actually filed suit against SYLVIA NASAR et. al.
Also the New Yorker has said that it stands behind the story and its authors.
see Boston Herald. Given that Yau has antagonized more than his fair share of mathematicians in the US, I don't think he can win a libel suit. The best outcome Yau can expect is some form of New Yorker "correction" buried in small print.

For a public figure to win a libel suit against a media publication in the US is extremely difficult.
The plaintiff has to convince the jury of all 3 key elements of defamation, falsity and actual malice. Malice is the hardest to prove - if Yau were to sue Nasar and company, he had to show that they libeled him with intention to do injury to him in the first place, rather than mere incompetence or unprofessionalism.
See e.g. Westmoreland vs CBS

In spite of this, I hope Yau will file suit against them. There is a lot spin and overt anti-Chinese
sentiments in the article in particular and American media in general.

Sun Bin said...

You are right. Yau has asked for apologies and retraction and threatened with law suit.
I think I said "he took legal action" because he made that request through a lawyer, but I guess that does not count as legal action.

If what Yau said is right and that he had communicated with New Yorker multiple times prior to its publication, then the reporters is either 'malicious' or incompetent. Anyway, from what I read the report was quite ignorant about the whole affair regarding Yau (e.g. heir to Chern, pushing grad students for excellence/etc), but very informative on other areas (Perelman/ Hamilton/ Thurston), making one wonders what led her to such conclusion.

Sun Bin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sun Bin said...

This is my personal opinion on the Yau-New Yorker controversy.

I may be wrong but here what I left on the sci-am blog (+ some minor amendment):


Yau is not what Nasar described. I think you are right that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Nasar has attacked Yau's character rather than focused on the Poincare controversy.

This is my personal interpretation of the controversies (from someone who has left the field for a few years)

1. Yau perhaps exaggerated the Zhu-Cao achievement. But it was mainly for the consumption of Chinese audience. He wanted to boost the morale of the mathematics society in China (and those "whom were marginalized/discriminated by the Peking University clan" -- according to Yau).
Nasar mis-understood Yau's motivation and thought he wanted to steal Perelman's honor and made a few reporting mistakes.
The fact that Yau chose to talked about the Cao-Zhu paper in Beijing (instead of Harvard or anywhere outside China) supports the hypothesis that Yau did not want to discredit Perelman.

2. Nasar made a few nasty comments on Yau, such as trying to be the sole heir of Chern and the godfather of Chinese mathematics. I think this is simply wrong and irresponsible. Nasar also accused Yau of pushing his student to tackle big problems, I think this is simply laughable, anyone who knows an Ivy League professor or grad student should know that. (see Yau's defense on this, which is solid)

3. Yau (and his supporters) seems to think that Nasar was secretly bought by his rival(ex-student) Gang Tian (& team). I guess the situation is probably less sinistic. Nasar probably just wanted to make a story, but she was willing to trade off the accuracies of the facts to make it more dramatic.

4. I personally do not think Yau's accusation on Tian was totally fair -- especialy on Tian's receiving double salary in Princeton/MIT and Beijing University. As for Yau's accusation of Tian's plagiarism, Yau seems to have some witness but Tian also got his case so I am not sure who is right, or mayber the truth is, as gthe sci-am blog says, something in the 'middle'

a) Yau has his faults in exaggerating and biase on his students achievement. But I think it is a much smaller crime than Nasar accused him of. Yau is a character far from what Nasar portrays.
b) The competition in Math research is intense. Yau is competing on 'fair rule', i.e. like 90% other mathematicians.
c) Nasar is a lousy reporter, who has somehow lost her objectivity, perhaps too eager to write a dramatic story. (this is very easy to see from her accusation of how Yau led his students)
But I do not think there is conspiracy between Nasar and Yau's enemy.

hoong said...

Like ESWN, I also have story to tell....

The nice thing is, when I reported my resentment of what happenings to the head of faculty, I was first threatened by the lecturer, then I received a C- for the final report (where I received B and above for the previous papers). The professor was not rehired for the following term. But my C- stayed.

This is with a US university.

Sometime I wonder if it is worth the effort to be a whistle-blower. There are just too many things would suddenly appear against one.

Sun Bin said...

Hamilton spoke out.

Prof. Richard Hamilton, Columbia Univ., responds to the New Yorker article, September 25, 2006

Howard M Cooper
Todd & Weld LLP
28 State Street, Boston, MA 02109
Direct Dial (617) 624-4713 / Fax (617) 227-5777

September 25, 2006

Dear Mr. Cooper

I am very disturbed by the unfair manner in which Yau Shing-Tung has
been portrayed in the New Yorker article. I am providing my thoughts below
to set the record straight. I authorize you to share this letter with the New
Yorker and the public if that will be helpful to Yau.

As soon as my first paper on the Ricci Flow on three dimensional manifolds
with positive Ricci curvature was complete in the early '80's,Yau immediately
recognized it's importance;and although I had proved a result on which
he had been working with minimal surfaces,rather than exhibit any jealosy he
became my strongest supporter.He pointed out to me way back then that the
Ricci Flow would form the neck pinch singularities,undoing the connected
sum decomposition,and that this could lead to a proof of the Poincare conjecture.
In 1985 he brought me to UC San Diego together with Rick Schoen and
Gerhard Huisken,and we had a very exciting and productive group in Geometric
Analysis.Huisken was working on the Mean Curvature Flow for
hypersurfaces,which closely parallels the Ricci Flow,being the most natural
flows for intrinsic and extrinsic curvature respectively.Yau repeatedly urged
us to study the blow-up of singularities in these parabolic equations using
techniques parallel to those developed for elliptic equations like the minimal
surface equation,on which Yau and Rick are experts.Without Yau's guidance
and support at this early stage,there would have been no Ricci Flow program
for Perelman to finish.

Yau also had some outstanding students at San Diego who had come with
him from Princeton, in particular Cao Huai-Dong,Ben Chow and Shi Wan-
Xiong. Yau encouraged them to work on the Ricci Flow,and all made very
important contributions to the field.Cao proved existence for all time for the
normalized Ricci Flow in the canonical Kaehler case ,and convergence for
zero or negative Chern class.Cao's results form the basis for Perelman's exciting
work on the Kaehler Ricci Flow,where he shows for positive Chern class
that the diameter and scalar curvature are bounded. Ben Chow,in addition to
excellent work on other flows,extended my work on the Ricci Flow on the
two dimensional sphere to the case of curvature of varying sign.Shi Wan-
Xiong pioneered the study of the Ricci Flow on complete noncompact
manifolds,and in addition to many beautiful arguments he proved the local
derivative estimates for the Ricci Flow.The blow-up of singularities usually
produces noncompact solutions,and the proof of convergence to the blow-up
limit always depends on Shi's derivative estimates; so Shi's work is central to
all the limit arguments Perelman and I use.

In '82 Yau and Peter Li wrote an exceedingly important paper giving a
pointwise differential inequality for linear heat equations which can be integrated
along curves to give classic Harnack inequalities. Yau repeatedly urged
me to study this paper,and based on their approach I was able to prove Harnack
inequalities for the Ricci Flow and for the Mean Curvature Flow. This
Harnack inequality,generalized from Li-Yau,forms the basis for the analysis
of ancient solutions which I started, and which Perelman completed and uses
as the basic tool in his canonical neighborhood theorem. Cao Huai-Dong
proved the Harnack estimate for the Ricci Flow in the Kahler case,and Ben
Chow did the same for the Yamabe Flow and the Gauss Curvature Flow.

But there is more to this story. Perelman's most important is his noncollapsing
result for Ricci Flow,valid in all dimensions,not just three,and thus
one whose importance for the future extends well beyond the Poincare
conjecture,where it is the tool for ruling out cigars,the one part of the singularity
classification I could not do. This result has two proofs,one using an
entropy for a backward scalar heat equation,and one using a path integral.The
entropy estimate comes from integrating a Li-Yau type differential Harnack
inequality for the adjoint heat equation,and the other is the optimal Li-Yau
path integral for the same Harnack inequality; as Perelman acknowledges in
7.4 of his first paper,where he writes "an even closer reference is [L-Y],where
they use "length" associated to a linear parabolic equation,which is pretty
much the same as in our case".

Over the years Yau has consistently supported the Ricci Flow and the
whole field of Geometric Flows,which has other important successes as
well,such as the recent proof of the Penrose Conjecture by Huisken and
Ilmanen,a very important result in General Relativity. I cannot think of any
other prominent leader who gave nearly support to our field as Yau has.

Yau has built is an assembly of talent,not an empire of power,people
attracted by his energy,his brilliant ideas,and his unflagging support for first
rate mathematics, people whom Yau has brought together to work on the hardest
problems.Yau and I have spent innumerable hours over many years working
together on the Ricci Flow and other problems,often even late at night. He
has always generously shared his suggestions with me,starting with the observation
of neck pinches,never asking for credit. In fact just last winter when I
finally managed to prove a local version of the Harnack inequality for the
Ricci Flow,a problem we had worked on together for many years,and I said I
ought to add his name to the paper,he modestly declined.It is unfortunate that
his character has been so badly misrepresented.He has never to my knowledge
proposed any percentages of credit,nor that Perelman should share credit for
the Poincare conjecture with anyone but me; which is reasonable,as indeed no
one has been more generous in crediting my work than Perelman himself.Far
from stealing credit for Perelman's accomplishment,he has praised Perelman's
work and joined me in supporting him for the Fields Medal.And indeed no
one is more responsible than Yau for creating the program on Ricci Flow
which Perelman used to win this prize.

Sincerely yours,
Richard S Hamilton
Professor of Mathematics,
Columbia University
Letter on Yau.nb 3


Anonymous said...

Beida climbed another spot to No. 14 in
The 2006 World University Rankings, published today in The Times of London, the best outside of US and UK.



Anonymous said...

well, Yau has been a very well known superstar in this scene. But sometimes any person can make mistakes, being blinded by myopia. Not many people on earth seem to believe Yau's contribution to the conjecture. Now he would better go back to his beloved mother country, China, as he wishes, rahter than identifying himself a proud American.