Friday, November 23, 2012

Are you a 'rigor mortis' kind of guy? or maybe even a 'rigor post mortem' one?

"Certain generalities seem to have been drawn from this, namely that a concern for rigor comes at the end of a mathematical develop- ment, after the "creative ferment" has subsided, that rigor in fact means rigor mortis. Weierstrass himself provides a good counterexample to this generality, for all his work on the spectral theory of forms was motivated by a concern for rigor, a concern that was vital to his accomplishments.

Weierstrass was dissatisfied with the kind of algebraic proofs that were com- monplace in his time. These proofs proceeded by formal manipulation of the symbols involved, and no attention was given to the singular cases that could arise when the symbols were given actual values. One operated with symbols that were regarded as having "general" values, and hence such proofs were sometimes re- ferred to as treating the "general case", although it would be more appropriate to speak of the generic case. Generic reasoning had led Lagrange and Laplace to the incorrect conclusion that, in their problems, stability of the solutions to the system of linear differential equations required not only reality but the nonexistence of multiple roots. (Hence their problem had seemed all the more formidable !) In fact, Sturm who was the first to study the eigenvalue problem (1) proved among other things the "theorem" that the eigenvalues are not only real but distinct as well. His proof was of course generic, and he himself appears to have been uneasy about it; for at the end of his paper he confessed that some of his theorems might be subject to exceptions if the matrix coefficients are given specific values. Cauchy was much more careful to avoid what he called disparagingly "the generalities of algebra," but multiple roots also proved problematic for him. As he realized, his proof of the existence of an orthogonal substitution which diagonalizes the given quadratic form depended upon the nonexistence of multiple roots. He tried to brush away the cases not covered by his proof with a vague reference to an infinitesimal argument that was anything but satisfactory.

It was to clear up the muddle surrounding multiple roots by replacing generic arguments with truly general ones that Weierstrass was led to create his theory of elementary divisors. Here is a good example in which a concern for rigor proved productive rather than sterile. Another good example is to be found in the work of Frobenius, Weierstrass' student, as I shall shortly indicate.
(The Theory of Matrices in the 19th Century, Hawkins)

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