ICM2010 — more on the opening ceremony

Let me try to give a stream-of-consciousness description of the opening ceremony, by which I mean translate the notes I feverishly took into continuous prose and not do much else to them.

I booked my hotel fairly late in the day, for the obvious reason that if I left it longer, the work needed would be identical but I would have less choice. And so it turned out: instead of staying in the hotel right next to the congress (so much so that you can get from one to the other without going out of doors) I am, as I mentioned in my first post, about 40 minutes away. The disadvantages of this are obvious — I can’t nip back to my room to get something, and I have to worry each day about how I’m going to get to and from the hotel. But the hotel itself is nice, and I quite like getting to know the city a bit rather than being cocooned in the conference area the whole time.

This morning they laid on buses to take people from the hotels to the congress (as they will every morning). I had had dire warnings about traffic, and been told to expect a two-hour journey, which would still have been quick enough to get to the opening ceremony on time but would have left me slightly anxious. As it was, the journey took the usual 40 minutes or so, so I got to the HICC at about 8.30. We had been told to be in our seats by 10.30, so I thought I had a couple of hours to kill. However, this turned out to be a miscalculation on my part.

I decided to use a bit of those two hours to check my email and work on a forthcoming EDP-related blog post. By the time I emerged from that a big queue had formed to get into the main hall, and by the time I got into the hall myself the nearest available seat to the front was a long way back, or not quite so far back but a long way round to the side. The room, I should explain, was a huge box shape, with lots and lots of chairs laid out — not a fancy auditorium such as they had in Madrid or Beijing or Berlin with banked seats. (The non-banking of seats would have been more of a problem had the average height of delegates been greater, and may have been a problem for those delegates unfortunate enough to find themselves behind me.) But it was better than Zurich, where the main hall was also box-shaped and not big enough to accommodate everyone, which left me having to settle for an overflow room with a video link.

A big compensation for being a long way back was that I was near a small group of musicians playing pulsating Indian music. Normally I’m not much of a fan of Indian music, but this converted me to some extent. What was so good about it? Well, the line-up (if that’s the right word) was three people playing instruments that sounded, and to a lesser extent looked, like a cross between a saxophone and an oboe, and then there were two people playing drums. Each drum was roughly cylindrical, with two ends that you could hit, and the drummers had a stick to hit one end with and their other hand to hit the other end with. On the non-stick hand they wore objects a bit like thimbles, except that they were fixed on somehow. They went on every finger apart from the thumb. And with the stick and the hand they played what were obviously very complicated rhythms, which I would have loved to understand but couldn’t. It was obvious that there was a system to them, partly because I know that there is a system, but partly because sometimes one drummer would stop playing and do a counting exercise with his hand. But unlike counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 with your fingers, this was counting in a syncopated rhythm with various different hand positions and wonderful jerky movements that coincided exactly with emphases in the drumming. I found it mesmerising, and a great help in filling the two hours or so that I had to spend in my seat. Also helpful were my two neighbours, one a graph theorist from Hyderabad and the other a PhD student in algebra from Chennai. And also helpful was the opportunity my notebook gave me to think about mathematics a bit (in relation to the EDP blog post).

At 10.45, a woman in a green sari began proceedings. I didn’t concentrate at a crucial moment and so never quite found out who she was, but she acted as a kind of master of ceremonies (I don’t know a non-sexist term for that job) throughout the morning.

She started by saying that no statement about India is true or false, except that that statement itself was true. As you can imagine, this went down well with an audience of mathematicians. I haven’t bothered to think about whether that entire statement is true, false or neither. (OK, if we’re being boring about it, it is absolutely true that most of India is further south than most of Pakistan, so both halves of her statement were false. But … oh never mind.) She told us that Hyderabad was a city of 7 million people, that it was the intellectual capital of India, that the Koh-I-Noor diamond was mined nearby (I squirmed a little in my seat at that point), that it is famous for something — I think edible — called something I didn’t catch but it sounded like billani, or did I just think that because of Villani? She ended by asking us to stand for the president of India and remain standing for the Indian national anthem.

Did you assume on reading that that the president of India was a man? I’m sorry to say that I got a surprise when something the woman in green said made it clear that the president of India is in fact a woman. At the front right-hand corner of the hall (which, incidentally, was a lot wider than it was long) some doors opened and right outside them was a fancy white car, out of which the president and her entourage emerged. (I haven’t mentioned, but there was of course heavy security, though in the end it turns out that I could easily have brought my camera. In fact, I could have brought more or less any non-weapon, and the only consequence would have been that I had to pass my bag through an x-ray machine.

The president was short and looked a sprightly 70 or so, but from the distance I was at I could have got that wrong. When she reached her seat, but had not yet sat down, she greeted us by putting her two hands together, pointing upwards, a gesture I was familiar with only from Indian sculptures. The national anthem was, like the previous music, just a tune with drum accompaniment, notable for modulating just at the very end. (To be precise, it was in a very clear E major — to describe it in Western terms — but strangely ended, in even quavers apart from a held last note, with E E F# F# G# G# F# G# A.)

After the national anthem was over came a ceremony to light a lamp (symbolizing all sorts of obvious things). The result of this was that there were four small flames, lit by the president, the governor of Andhra Pradesh (the state where Hyderabad is), the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, and Laci Lovász, the president of the IMU.

Then started some speeches. The usual challenge on these occasions is to know what to say that isn’t so obvious that everyone else will say it too — the ICM is over 100 years old, is wonderful, as is the host country, as is the particular city in the host country, as is mathematics, etc. etc. The chairman of the organizing committee spoke in this vein but had the advantage of being near the beginning. Then Lovász spoke, also fairly standard stuff but he kept it very short.

Then the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh told us a few things about Hyderabad — that it was a composite culture, a centre of education and research (with 12 universities), rivalling Bangalore as an IT centre, a top place in DNA fingerprinting (also mentioned by the woman in green, so it’s obviously a big deal here). He told us an Indian proverb: one who is good at calculations is a great man. Where does that leave a good mathematician who messes up calculations, I idly wondered as he told us of various mathematicians from Andhra Pradesh, of whom Rao was the most notable example.

Then the woman in green said, “And now the moment you have been perhaps anxiously waiting for.” And perhaps you, dear reader, have too, but if I have kept you waiting for longer than you might have liked, then I will indirectly have conveyed what a typical ICM opening ceremony is like. And actually the wait is a good thing — if it were all over right at the beginning then there is a risk that the announcement of the prizes would be a bit of a damp squib.

Martin Grötschel read the citations and then each prizewinner received a medal from the president and a cheque from Lovász. But first he announced the names of the people on the committee. My neighbours were amused to find that their neighbour was one of them.

Elon Lindenstrauss was the first to be announced. In a piece of not ideal timing (repeated for the later winners) his name appeared on the big screens in the hall before it was spoken, but it didn’t matter too much. A strange noise of obvious approval greeted the announcement (again repeated for the later winners). I can’t quite explain what it was that gave me that impression, but others noted the same.

Lindenstrauss looked a bit nervous. He was wearing jacket and tie, but not a suit, and didn’t quite know where to put his hands. (I have no idea where one is supposed to put one’s hands, so this is not meant as a criticism.) As he was about to receive the medal, he put his hands together in the same Indian-sculpture way, which was either a slightly cheeky joke or something he had been instructed to do. My money was on the latter but I would wait to see whether everyone else did it as well. He then shook hands with Lovász. Since most of these details are the same for all four Fields medallists (in particular the hand gesture was not a joke), I won’t keep repeating them.

Ngô Bảo Châu had on a light grey suit, with fairly baggy trousers, and tie. He was smiling, but in an in-control way. He looked pretty young. He was about a head shorter than Lindenstrauss.

Smirnov had on a slightly lighter grey suit, and had a half smile. He did two quick bows to accompany the hand gesture.

And then the moment I had been anxiously waiting for. Villani was wearing a three-piece suit, dark grey, with an interesting (as in stylish rather than weird) cut, and the sort of cross between a bow tie and a scarf that can be seen in this picture. He, Smirnov and Lindenstrauss were all of a very similar height, which was easy to tell because after receiving their prizes, each winner went to the back of the stage and stood against a wall that was mostly yellow but had a horizontal boundary with a red area at something close to head height. (If you’ve seen The Usual Suspects you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about.)

The Nevanlinna prize was then announced, and now I had absolutely no idea who was going to get it (except that I had heard a possible name mentioned, who turned out not to be the person). It was given to Daniel Spielman, whose name was new to me. Or at least, I thought it was, but when his work was described later in the day I realized that actually I had heard of several of his results and just forgotten the name attached to them. Anyhow, I won’t forget his name now. He had a dark grey suit and a nice natural smile. And he was slightly shorter than the non-Ngo medallists.

I’ve still got the Gauss and Chern prizes to go, and then the rest of the ceremony, and I won’t even have started on the Laudationes, but it’s getting late and I’ve got to get up early. This task is already beginning to feel like an illustration my father once gave me of the nature of infinity: if you write such a detailed diary that it takes a week to write up each day, then you will nevertheless end up writing about every single day. But I’ll try not to finish covering the ICM in mid-September.

Quick update. I’ve just discovered that the handing out of the Fields medals can be seen on Youtube here. Not sure where that leaves my verbal description, but it seems silly not to mention the video. The other prizes are there too if you do obvious searches for them.

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30 Responses to “ICM2010 — more on the opening ceremony”

  1. egan Says:

    >>>the sort of cross between a bow tie and a scarf

    It’s called a “lavallière”:


  2. Todd Trimble Says:

    The presumably edible “billani”: could it be what is often transcribed as biryani on restaurant menus? (One of my favorite types of Indian dishes!)

  3. ggc Says:

    The food mentioned was Biryani, a dish that Hyderabad is quite famous for. This post was light and quite enjoyable.

  4. prez Says:

    The speech at ICM 2010 is the top item in the President’s web page!

  5. Gil Kalai Says:

    The ICM page http://www.icm2010.org.in/imu-prizes/prize-winners-2010
    contains the full loudation papers for each prize winner as well as a short article (The work profile) with some biographical facts. (My article has still a few typos, one amusing referring to a paper as comprehensible instead of comprehensive). The (other) full loudations are great and give a very good, insightful, and friendly picture.

    Of course, it is difficult to try to transform these papers into 25 minute talks, but I think people could get very good impressions of the mathematics of the prize winners, (and experts could have gained some nice insights as well).

    I will probably upload the pdf of my presentation on Dan Spielman to my home page or blog when I will find the time.

    • gowers Says:

      Yes, I spotted that recently, and now wonder whether it makes sense to try to explain what I got out of the talks. I think I might do so more as a description of the experience of attending the talks than as an attempt to explain the mathematics, given that that is done better than I can in the full texts of the laudationes.

  6. r Says:

    At first it wasn’t even obvious to me that “master of ceremonies” is gender-specific. In any case, how about “MC”?

  7. theoremoftheweek Says:

    Might the `cross between a saxophone and an oboe’ have been a nadaswaram (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadaswaram)? I am always interested in unusual double reed instruments!


  8. siddharth Says:

    It sounds like what you heard was a combination of a nadaswaram (the double-reeded horn) and a thavil (the cylindrical drum). This is a standard combination, since both instruments are louder than normal, and they are often played at festive or important occasions, like a wedding (or ICM!).

    Just to make sure, here is an example from youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpo4fbIkDbA

    The music played was probably carnatic music, which is the classical music of south india. Rhythm in general and drum solos in particular are a big part of carnatic music. Performing the counting exercises you mention is called ‘putting thala,’ and is ubiquitous while performing.

  9. Suresh Says:

    Carnatic rhythms are quite complicated, and often involve prime beat counts: I believe there’s even a 29-beat rhythm pattern. No wonder it sounds confusing :).

  10. V Vinay Says:

    The instrument was indeed the Nadaswaram, culturally confined to the south of India. It is played in south india on any auspicious occasion; for example, any traditional wedding. It is also typically played in temples.

    “Hands together, pointing upwards as in an Indian Sculpture way,” is a traditional Indian greeting, the Namaste. This is not confined to just the south but to all of the country. It is literally sanskrit for “I bow to you.” There is an Indian aphorism that a guest should be treated like a God; it is but natural therefore that you bow to your guests!

    You should try the Namaste a few times instead of the handshake while you are in India.

    By the way, this is something you should know about India. If you had just walked to the front and so much as raised half an eyebrow with a local organizer, he would have ejected some Indian sitting in the front row for you. The guest, you see, is a God and you are not only one, but the creator of four more!!

    Btw, since this is your first visit to India/Hyderabad, you should land up at the Charminar and sample a few shops at random there. (Be careful, they will treat you well but will overcharge you if they can.) I am now curious to know what else you find unexpected: color, noise, (you have already covered the obligatory cow) ??

    • anonym2 Says:

      This kind of gesture is common in some Asian cultures. It shows a sign of respect and is used instead of a western handshake. In some countries, the higher people raise their hands the more respect they show to the other person. Human cultures are wonderful. Their cultures are related to their philosophies. Sometimes I wondered if human cultures are somehow related to deep mathematics in some mysterious ways. Any take on this topic? For example, whether Ramanujan’s mathematical discoveries/revelations could somehow be related to the mysterious Indian music and culture that he lived in during his time.

  11. Julie Rehmeyer Says:

    I wrote up non-technical descriptions for the IMU about each winner (the “work profiles”), intended for the general public. The laudations will be more informative for most mathematicians, but if you want an easy way to get an overview, check out the work profiles.

    Stanislav Smirnov

    Ngo Bao Chau

    Cedric Villani

    Elon Lindenstrauss

    • Robert Says:

      Julie: I have found your “work profiles” to be very accessible! Perfect for someone with my background (not a mathematician but have some basic math background).

    • egan Says:

      Julie: Excellent descriptions, thanks! As a non mathematician I found these profiles very interesting.
      In Ngo’s work profile you talked about “Hitchen fibrations”…but in the laudations by James Arthur it’s “Hitchin fibration”. What is the real name ?

  12. Julie Rehmeyer Says:

    Whoops – the links didn’t come through, for some reason. I’ll try again.

    Stanislav Smirnov

    Ngo Bao Chau

    Cedric Villani

    Elon Lindenstrauss

  13. John Sidles Says:

    Julie, I had already noticed your byline on all four profiles, which were uniformly excellent … it’s not easy to write well *and* for the general public, about such abstract achievements. Thank you and congratulations.

    • Julie Rehmeyer Says:

      Very glad to hear that, John. I had excellent help from the winners, the laudators, and a couple of other folks.

  14. Julie B Says:

    I could have told you about the lavallière… (Named after Louis XIV’s first significant mistress.)

    • Ben G Says:

      Personally, I think Cedric’s style is wonderful. It speaks volumes for his technical achievements that his sartorial contributions to mathematics didn’t even merit a mention in the Fields citation.

    • Julie B Says:

      I quite agree. Especially since it’s been his trademark for over 15 years. However, in our times of political correctness, alluding to people’s physical apparence is probably out, even when they are white and male… (Unfortunately?)

  15. tourist Says:

    If you have time, Hyderabad has both Muslim and Hindu architecture.
    (Or maybe you can see from the bus.)
    The Muslim architecture typically features bulbous onion-topped minarets or domes.
    The Hindu architecture is very different.
    The buildings are much more rectangular and the walls are covered with elaborate sculptures (both inside and out).
    For example see this Wiki link, scroll down to the image of the ‘Birla Mandir’ (1/3 way down).
    Both types of buildings are typically made from stone, not wood.
    There may be a lot of marble (I do not know).


  16. Namaskaarah World … « 2ndlook – View From A Square Prism Says:

    [...] ICM2010 – more on the opening ceremony (gowers.wordpress.com) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)India Tagged with: Asia, dandavat, Demonization of Islam, desert bloc, EU, Europe, greeting, Greeting card, India, international trade laws, Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, loot, namaskaar, Respect for the individual, salaam, shaking hands, shalom, Shopping, slavery, Threat Of Westernization, USA, West, western values, World Trade Organization, WTO [...]

  17. Koundinya Vajjha Says:

    You make such an entertaining and a wonderful read Mr.Gowers..I personally am very glad you’ve been invited here to Hyderabad.

  18. ICM2010 — Ngo laudatio « Gowers's Weblog Says:

    [...] continue with brief descriptions of the laudationes, let me mention that Julie Rehmeyer has written descriptions of their work for a general audience and Terence Tao has now posted about the work of the Fields medallists and the other prizewinners. [...]

  19. Wiskundemeisjes » Blog Archive » Het laatste wiskundige nieuws Says:

    [...] of Mathematicians). En als ik zeg uitgebreid, dan bedoel ik ook echt uitgebreid. Een fragment uit More on the opening ceremony. Lindenstrauss looked a bit nervous. He was wearing jacket and tie, but not a suit, and didn’t [...]

  20. Kaizer Says:

    Mathematicians do have personality!

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