ICM2010 — rest of day one

As I write this I'm sitting in the Rajiv Gandhi international Aiport waiting for a flight to Dubai. The ICM lasts till Friday, but for me it is over: with a son of two and a half, there are limits to how long it is reasonable to be away, and the marginal utility of the ICM has dipped below the marginal cost of staying away (or rather, that is how I judged it in advance). Actually, today (Monday the 23rd) is the half-way point and is a free day. Most of the delegates, to judge from the people I've spoken to, are taking the opportunity to go on ICM-organized tours. It is pretty tantalizing not to be doing that myself, but I leave India with a huge affection for the country and a strong sense that I'll be back.

Listening to five laudationes in a row is pretty gruelling — as I know from having done it five times now. After they were over, Assaf Naor asked whether I wanted to go and get a cup of coffee somewhere, or whether I would be listening to the talk by Varadhan, a recent Abel prize winner. To make my decision easier, he explained that he himself was skipping the talk only because he had heard it before, and he knew that it was excellent. I hesitated, and in the end decided that self-preservation was in order, a principle that I continued to adopt later. By that I mean that if you go to every talk that has a good chance of being superb, plus every talk that is sufficiently noteworthy that you don't want to miss it even if it is terrible, then you end up utterly exhausted. Because the laudationes had started late, there was very little break between them and the beginning of Varadhan's talk, and I just couldn't face three and half hours, or whatever it would have been, of continuous talk. The difference between this ICM and previous ICMs is that these little decisions of mine, which I normally like to make rather discreetly (which is particularly easy for parallel sessions, because you might always be at a different talk), are now completely public. But I think I'm ready to live with this.

Assaf also introduced me to Irit Dinur, whom I was very pleased to meet. [By the way, I'd like to point out, for the sake of the very small percentage of readers who might care, that I dithered for a long time about whether to write "who" or "whom" there. One is more correct, but sounds a bit pedantic. In the end I couldn't quite bear to write "who", having initially written it and even started this explanation but as an explanation of why I couldn't quite bear to write "whom". But then I found that my dislike of "whom" wore off slightly. In the end, the truth is that neither reads very well: what I should do is go back and just paraphrase the whole sentence, but life is short.] The three of us ended up at a place that called itself a Deli, which was on a corridor that linked the main conference hotel to the conference centre. I've already mentioned our conversation. The other parts that I remember were some detailed mathematical explanations from Assaf, whose enthusiasm for our subject is boundless, and a debate about whether the current format for laudationes is as good as it could be. Irit thinks they should be ten minutes only. I can see the point of this: it would make it impossible to go into much detail and would force the speakers to concentrate on the headline reasons, so to speak, for the award going to the person in question. It would also make the laudationes less of an ordeal. In the end, however, I disagree. Or rather, I can see that at the end of some laudationes (I'm not talking about this year's) it might be the case that the useful information could have been conveyed in ten minutes, but I still think that an optimal 25-minute laudatio (which I think is what it is supposed to be) is better than an optimal ten-minute laudatio. Talking of which, I forgot to mention Jacob Palis's style of chairmanship: one or two of the talks ran over, his response to which was to get up from his chair and stand on the stage with his arms folded in a way that would have embarrassed me into stopping pretty quickly, but didn't seem to have that effect on the speakers.

Next up for me was two receptions, one hosted by the US National Committee for Mathematics and one by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, both from 6-8pm. I randomly decided to go to the US one first. Soon I found myself with a glass of red wine in one hand, which left the other free to spear little bits of chicken with a cocktail stick (which I was offered frequently) and dip them in a sauce before I ate them. I don't actually know that what I've just written is true, because by now I have been to so many receptions that I cannot distinguish between them down to this kind of detail. But what I can say is that approximately 100 percent of these receptions had little bits of chicken coming round frequently. Often the sauce was green, made with mint and coriander.

Cédric Villani was at the reception. I had met him once before, briefly in Madrid in 2006 where he was an invited speaker, and he also knows my wife slightly. So I congratulated him, and reminded him of that, but he didn't need reminding. It must have been about his hundredth conversation of a very similar kind. After about 30 seconds of it (which was about the right length — I'm not trying to suggest that it was cut off prematurely), he headed towards the drinks and the hundred and first …

At around 7.05, somebody started giving a speech. It seemed an appropriate moment to head off to the Norwegian reception, held at the Novotel ballroom (the Novotel being the hotel adjacent to the congress building). There I found many of the same people I had been talking to at the US reception, but some others as well. (Part of the explanation for the others was that they had chosen the opposite order from me, but there may have been a few people who had been invited to just one of the two receptions.) Whatever the precise details of the food on offer, what I am confident of was that it was very similar at the two receptions, though I have a dim memory that it was slightly better at the Norwegian one.

At 8.15 I had an invitation to a dinner that, according to the invitation from the Executive Organizing Committee of the ICM, was to "felicitate the awardees". I could translate that into more conventional English (which reminds me that I meant to point out a rather charming mistake on the lunch coupons, for which the dates were given as 19th, 20th, 21th, 22th, etc.), but it wasn't clear in advance what "dinner" meant. Did it mean a rather formal sit-down occasion for just a small number of people, or would it be a vast dinner with huge queues for food, or would it be something in between? Two clues were that Oliver Riordan (the person I ran into in Dubai airport who was an invited speaker) was invited too, and that it was to be held in Halls G.01 – G.06. So perhaps the invitation had been extended to all invited speakers. (As I mentioned before, I was officially an invited speaker, even if not one in reality.)

It was indeed something in between. The combination of Halls G.01 – G.06 (the convention centre was the kind of place where almost all walls could be folded up, if that's the right phrase, so that rooms were of variable size — in particular, the vast room where the opening ceremony took place was divided up afterwards into one, still vast, room of about half the size of the original one, a corridor, a smaller room for talks, and the room where the computers were) produced a room that was not too large. In fact, looking back on it I'm not sure they used all of 1-6. The food started with yet more chickeny eats being handed round and continued with what would become the other standard culinary experience, something pretty similar to a buffet in an Indian restaurant: you would take a plate and help yourself to a selection of different dishes, each in a metal something for which I can't think of a good word. Since I'm a mathematician, let us take X to be the container in question. Then X had a domed lid hinged at two antipodal points so that either the lid was underneath X, or you took hold of a handle and pulled the lid till it formed a hemisphere above X, closing it and keeping the food warm.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you this. Perhaps more interesting is that as I came into the room, Lindenstrauss was leaving it with his wife and children. He was carrying a very tired-looking daughter, and said he'd be back once he'd got his children to bed. He duly was, and I had a chance to congratulate him too, which meant that the only younger awardees I did not felicitate were Ngo and Spielman, who were the only ones I did not know, and still do not know, even slightly. In fact I'm not at all sure that they were at the dinner. I almost had a chance to felicitate Spielman, since he knew Assaf and ran into the two of us earlier. I was hoping to be introduced, but Assaf, like a true mathematician, did not do the honours, and I, like a true mathematician, did not take matters into my own hands. So I have come tantalizingly close to meeting and felicitating Dan Spielman, but didn't quite make it.

After that I shared a taxi back to the hotel with Marianne Freiberger and Rachel I-didn't-catch-her-surname from plus magazine, who were (and still are) also covering the ICM and happened to be in the same hotel. By the time we got back it was about 10.00. I then spent about three hours at my computer, writing one of my earlier posts and having a long Skype conversation with one of my sons (not the two-and-a-half year old). As I have already mentioned, I found myself annoyingly un-tired, so did not get to sleep until ridiculously late, which was unfortunate as the next day I would have to get up early enough to catch the bus that would get me to HICC in time for the beginning of the next day’s proceedings, which were connected with the new Chern prize and were due to start at 9.30.

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7 Responses to “ICM2010 — rest of day one”

  1. Mark Meckes Says:

    I suppose it shows me to be rather pedantic myself, but “whom I was very pleased to meet” sounds perfectly fine to my ears. :)

  2. Todd Trimble Says:

    I concur with Mark: “whom” is fine to my ears.

    The thingy which keeps food warm is what I (as an American) would call a (modernized) chafing dish.

    I’m really enjoying these posts!

  3. TonyK Says:

    X = chafing dish

  4. Deane Says:

    I’m sure many others have already said this already, but I do want to thank you for the wonderful blog postings on the ICM.

  5. ICM 2010 Volunteer Says:

    Reading your blog on ICM was a delightful experience. I am also curious as to your comments about the play “A Disappearing Number”. I hope this is not a wrong place to ask that.

    • gowers Says:

      Not at all the wrong place. Going to the play was basically the last thing I did at the ICM, so it may be a few days before I get to it, but I do plan to say something about it.

  6. the ICM2010 « Út V. Lê Says:

    [...] ICM2010 – rest of day one (gowers.wordpress.com) [...]

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