The LMFDB has gone live!
I previously expressed on this blog a somewhat muted opinion about certain aspects of the website’s functionality, and it seems that my complaints have mainly been addressed in the latest version. On the other hand, this live version has been released with a certain amount of fanfare, not to mention press releases. (Is AIM involved? yes it is.) First of all, there’s something about press releases in science (or mathematics) which I find deeply troubling. What is the point of such a press release? To drum up future funding? To generate mainstream press articles and thus communicate a sense of wonder and amazement to the public, who rarely get to glimpse the excitement of modern mathematics in action? Hopefully it’s the later which is true. But if so, does it really require that we stretch the truth about what we are doing in order to generate such excitement? (To see that the answer to the latter question is no, one need only look back on Scientific American articles on mathematics and physics from the ‘60s and ‘70s.) To be fair, I should also link to a more modest description of the project here. But then again, I dare you to click on the following website.
But back to the topic at hand. I have asked the opinion of at least three mathematicians about either the LMFDB or on computational aspects of the Langlands Programme more generally. For reasons of anonymity, I will not mention their names here. The first comment addresses a widely circulated quote from John Voight in the press release: “Our project is akin to the first periodic table of elements.” One source offered the following take on this (literally copied from my email and modified only by adjusting the spelling of the Langlands Programme to the preferred Canadian spelling):
The periodic table was a fantastic synthesis of decades, maybe even centuries, of empirical investigation, that led to profound new theoretical insights into chemistry and the physical world. The LMFDB is a rag-tag assortment of empirical facts in the Langlands Programme which lag far behind the theoretical advances of the past decade.
A second source, speaking more broadly on the question of computations in the Langlands programme, wondered if there had been any fundamental discoveries made via numerical computations since the BSD conjecture. While these are certainly pretty strong statements, I feel comfortable agreeing at least that, in our field, the theory is way in advance of the computations. We can prove potential modularity theorems for self-dual representations of any dimension, and yet it’s barely possible to compute even weight zero forms for U(3) (David Loeffler did some computations once). In part, I think this actually provides justification for effort into understanding how to actually compute these objects. After all, a really nice aspect of number theory is having a collection of beautiful concrete examples, from X_0(11) to Q(sqrt(-23)) (take that, Geometric Langlands!). Yet these statements also provide an alternate framework with which to view the LMFDB, which is less glorious than the press releases suggest. To continue with the periodic table analogy, the LMDFB is less a construction of a periodic table, but more a collection of sample elements from the periodic table neatly contained in small glass vials. Let me make the following point clear: some of the samples took a great deal of effort and ingenuity to extract. But it’s not entirely obvious to me how easy it will be to actually use the data to do fundamental new mathematics. This was the main point of my third commentator: the problem is that, if one actually wants to undertake a fairly serious computation, the complete set of data one has to compute will either not be available on the LMFDB (however big the LMDFB grows), or not available in a format which is at all practical to extract for actually doing computations. So, in the end, if you need some serious data, you are probably going to have to compute it again yourself. In some cases you may be able to do this, and in other cases not.
This leads to probably the most frustrating thing about the website from my perspective. I thought quite a bit about what the most useful format for some of the data might be (for me). Here is a typical thing that I might want to do: find a Hecke eigenform of some particular weight and level, and then compute information about the mod-p representations for various primes p (as well as congruences between forms). This is a little tricky to do at the moment, in part because the data for the coefficients is given in terms of a primitive element in the Hecke field (often the eigenvalue of T_2), and then the order generated by this element has (almost always) huge index (divisible by many small primes) inside the ring of integers, which makes computing the reductions slightly painful. There are certainly ways to address this specific problem and incorporate such functionality into the website. But it ultimately would be silly to customize the LMFDB for my particular needs. Instead, in the end, what I think would actually be most useful would be if the webpages on modular forms included enough pari/gp/sage/magma code to allow me to go away and compute the q-expansion myself. This is why I think that, even within computational number theory, the impact of programs like pari/sage/mamga will be far greater than the LMFDB.
If I think of the three most serious computations I have been involved with recently, they include partial weight one Hilbert modular forms, non-liftable classes of low weight Siegel modular forms, and Artin L-functions of S_5 extensions. The first required customized programs in magma (some written in part by John Voight), and the tables of higher weight HMFs in the LMFDB would not have been of any use. The computations of low weight Siegel modular forms in finite characteristic, which are absolutely terrifying, require completely custom computations (which, by the way, are completely beyond my capability of doing and involve getting Cris Poor and David Yuen to do them). Finally, the computation which would be the closest to an off the shelf computation was proving that the Artin L function of some extension provably had no zero in However, the LMFDB tables only go up to degree four representations. Fortunately I knew that Andy Booker was an expert in this sort of thing and he did it for me. (Then again, even if the data in this case was included, it’s totally unclear to me the extent to which the data in the tables has been “proved.”) And my point here is not to complain about the lack of certain computations being in the LMFDB, just to caution against the idea that its existence will be particularly useful for future computations.
The bigger point, however, is surely this: Is hype in science or mathematics a necessary evil to generate public enthusiasm, or is it an ultimately corrosive influence?