ICM2014 — opening ceremony

I’d forgotten just how full the first day of an ICM is. First, you need to turn up early for the opening ceremony, so you end up sitting around for an hour and half or so before it even starts. Then there’s the ceremony itself, which lasts a couple of hours. Then in the afternoon you have talks about the four Fields Medallists and the Nevanlinna Prize winner, with virtually no breaks. Then after a massive ten minutes, the Nevanlinna Prize winner talks about his (in this case) own work, about which you have just heard, but in a bit more detail. That took us to 5:45pm. And just to round things off, Jim Simons is giving a public lecture at 8pm, which I suppose I could skip but I think I’m not going to. (The result is that most of this post will be written after it, but right at this very moment it is not yet 8pm.)

I didn’t manage to maintain my ignorance of the fourth Fields medallist, because I was sitting only a few rows behind the medallists, and when Martin Hairer turned up wearing a suit, there was no longer any room for doubt. However, there was a small element of surprise in the way that the medals were announced. Ingrid Daubechies (president of the IMU) told us that they had made short videos about each medallist, and also about the Nevanlinna Prize winner, who was Subhash Khot. So for each winner in turn, she told us that a video was about to start. An animation of a Fields medal then rotated on the large screens at the front of the hall, and when it settled down one could see the name of the next winner. The beginning of each video was drowned out by the resulting applause (and also a cheer for Bhargava and an even louder one for Mirzakhani), but they were pretty good. At the end of each video, the winner went up on stage, to more applause, and sat down. Then when the five videos were over, the medals were presented, to each winner in turn, by the president of Korea.

Here they are, getting their medals/prize. It wasn’t easy to get good photos with a cheap camera on maximum zoom, but they give some idea.

Avila

Avila

Bhargava

Bhargava

Hairer

Hairer

Mirzakhani

Mirzakhani

DSC00645

Khot

After those prizes were announced, we had the announcements of the Gauss prize and the Chern medal. The former is for mathematical work that has had a strong impact outside mathematics, and the latter is for lifetime achievement. The Gauss medal went to Stanley Osher and the Chern medal to Phillip Griffiths.

If you haven’t already seen it, the IMU page about the winners has links to very good short (but not too short) summaries of their work. I’m quite glad about that because I think it means I can get away with writing less about them myself. I also recommend this Google Plus post by John Baez about the work of Mirzakhani.

I have one remark to make about the Fields medals, which is that I think that this time round there were an unusually large number of people who could easily have got medals, including other women. (This last point is important — one should think of Mirzakhani’s medal as the new normal rather than as some freak event.) I have two words to say about them: Mikhail Gromov. To spell it out, he is an extreme, but by no means unique, example of a mathematician who did not get a Fields medal but whose reputation would be pretty much unaltered if he had. In the end it’s the theorems that count, and there have been some wonderful theorems proved by people who just missed out this year.

Other aspects of the ceremony were much as one would expect, but there was rather less time devoted to long and repetitive speeches about the host country than I have been used to at other ICMs, which was welcome.

That is not to say that interesting facts about the host country were entirely ignored. The final speech of the ceremony was given by Martin Groetschel, who told us several interesting things, one of which was the number of mathematics papers published in international journals by Koreans in 1981. He asked us to guess, so I’m giving you the opportunity to guess before reading on.

Now Korea is 11th in the world for the number of mathematical publications. Of course, one can question what this really means, but it certainly means something when you hear that the answer to the question above is 3. So in just one generation a serious mathematical tradition has been created from almost nothing.

He also told us the names of the people on various committees. Here they are, except that I couldn’t quite copy all of them down fast enough.

The Fields Medal committee consisted of Daubechies, Ambrosio, Eisenbud, Fukaya, Ghys, Dick Gross, Kirwan, Kollar, Kontsevich, Struwe, Zeitouni and Günter Ziegler.

The program committee consisted of Carlos Kenig (chair), Bolthausen, Alice Chang, de Melo, Esnault, me, Kannan, Jong Hae Keum, Le Bris, Lubotsky, Nesetril and Okounkov.

The ICM executive committee (if that’s the right phrase) for the next four years will be Shigefumi Mori (president), Helge Holden (secretary), Alicia Dickenstein (VP), Vaughan Jones (VP), Dick Gross, Hyungju Park, Christiane Rousseau, Vasudevan Srinivas, John Toland and Wendelin Werner.

He also told us about various initiatives of the IMU, one of which sounded interesting (by which I don’t mean that the others didn’t). It’s called the adopt-a-graduate-student initiative. The idea is that the IMU will support researchers in developed countries who want to provide some kind of mentorship for graduate students in less developed countries working in a similar area who might otherwise not find it easy to receive appropriate guidance. Or something like that.

Ingrid Daubechies also told us about two other initiatives connected with the developing world. One was that the winner of the Chern Medal gets to nominate a good cause to receive a large amount of money. Stupidly I seem not to have written it down, but it may have been $250,000. Anyhow, that order of magnitude. Phillip Griffiths chose the African Mathematics Millennium Science Initiative, or AMMSI. The other was that the five winners of the Breakthrough Prizes in mathematics, Donaldson, Kontsevich, Lurie, Tao and Taylor, have each given $100,000 towards a $500,000 fund for helping graduate students from the developing world. I don’t know exactly what form the help will take, but the phrase “breakout graduate fellowships” was involved.

When I get time, I’ll try to write something about the Laudationes, but right now I need to sleep. I have to confess that during Jim Simons’s talk, my jet lag caught up with me in a major way and I simply couldn’t keep awake. So I don’t really have much to say about it, except that there was an amusing Q&A session where several people asked long rambling “questions” that left Jim Simons himself amusingly nonplussed. His repeated requests for short pithy questions were ignored. 

Just before I finish, I’ve remembered an amusing thing that happened during the early part of the ceremony, when some traditional dancing was taking place (or at least I assume it was traditional). At one point some men in masks appeared, who looked like this.

Masked dancers

Masked dancers

Just while we’re at it, here are some more dancers.

Dancers of various kinds

Dancers of various kinds

Anyhow, when the men in masks came on stage, there were screams of terror from Mirzakhani’s daughter, who looked about two and a half, and delightful, and she (the daughter) took a long time to be calmed down. I think my six-year-old son might have felt the same way — he had to leave a pantomime version of Hansel and Gretel, to which he had been taken as a birthday treat when he was five, almost the instant it started, and still has those tendencies.

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22 Responses to “ICM2014 — opening ceremony”

  1. Roy Abrams Says:

    I think it’s striking how many laureates were children of parents who worked in mathematics/physics. Besides Bhargava and Hairer this year, there are other, past winners in this category, e.g., Lions, Lindenstrauss, Witten, Novikov.

  2. Media Item from “Haaretz” Today: “For the first time ever…” | Combinatorics and more Says:

    […] More on the Fields medalists works can be found on Terry Tao’s blog. (New) And here is a live bloging (with pictures) on ICM2014 day 1 from Gowers’s blog.   And also here from the ICM site on the work of all prize […]

  3. joonkyunglee Says:

    A typo: Hyungji Park is probably Hyungju Park, the head of organising committee.

    Thank you — corrected now.

  4. Terence Tao Says:

    Regarding the Breakout Graduate Fellowships, the details are still being hammered out (this type of thing was new to all of us), but the basic idea is to give out fellowships from qualified students in developing countries to undertake graduate study at other institutions in developing countries, the idea being to strengthen the level of mathematical activity in both countries (a similar model is used by the World Academy of Science, http://www.twas.org/opportunities/fellowships/phd ). This turned out (by a fair margin) to be the most cost-effective way to support as many students as possible. We’re also hoping to attract further donors to expand the program.

    • Roy Abrams Says:

      I wonder if it’s possible to creating learning modules for younger students in developing countries; I’ve done some charitable work with a center for children in Ethiopia, who I suspect would benefit from that kind of curricular enrichment.

  5. PS Says:

    I am the person who ushered you to the center seats at Simons’ talk.
    The first Korean committee member is Hyungju Park, not Hyungji Park. He is the local committee chairman of ICM 2014.
    The mask dance is called “Cheo-Yong-Mu” and “Mu” means a dance. In the Korean legend Cheo-Yong is said to be a son of a dragon and he was described that he lived the late 9th century.
    Usually he is believed to be an arabian people. So he might be a person related to Mirzakhani. :-)

    Thank you very much for all that useful information, and for ushering me!

  6. BQ Says:

    Me thinks Me should be between Lubotsky and Nesetril, and not between Esnault and Kannan.

  7. BQ Says:

    Apropos Gromov – 10 prizes, EMS style, would solve the problem. People like Gromov are exceptions. Many Fields medalists would not stand out among other mathematicians if not for the Fields medal.

    • Atila Smith Says:

      Very true judgment on Gromov. Other mathematicians missed by Fields committees and with results at age 40 at least as good as the average recipient’s: Chern, Gelfand, Grauert, Hirzebruch, Leray, Suslin, Tate, Tits, Weil, Whitney,…Of course one must take into account that for a long period only two medals were offered every four years.

  8. ICM2014 ― opening ceremony | Quantum Tunnel Says:

    […] ICM2014 — opening ceremony // Gowers’s […]

  9. mathtuition88 Says:

    Reblogged this on Singapore Maths Tuition and commented:
    First Female Mathematician to get Fields’ Medal: Maryam Mirzakhani!

  10. QA Says:

    The point about Gromov is very well taken. Mathematicians such as Gromov and Langlands -add- to the prestige of any prize they receive, rather than the other way round. Of course, no prize is a foolproof judge of mathematical value, but the Fields medal seems to have a particular weakness when it comes to recognizing work whose impact will predominantly be felt in the long term.

    Many of us observing the exciting developments taking place in derived/homotopical algebraic geometry over the last 8 years or so were hoping for it to be rewarded by a Fields medal this year. This work was immediately lauded by the experts as providing the correct foundations for a huge swath of algebraic geometry, and which was certain to have a very wide range of applications. However, like with any foundational work, most of the early results (though by no means all) were internal to the subject, and hard to justify to a skeptical person outside the field. Perhaps it is natural that the Fields medal should take a conservative view in such cases, and not risk its prestige on the promise of future applications. However, it is sad that important, foundational work should be at a disadvantage compared to equally important, “above ground” work, when it comes to being recognized by the Fields medal. I hope it does not discourage future Grothendiecks and Quillens from pursuing fundamental work early in their careers, in favor of attacking concrete problems.

    None of this is to disparage any of the (extremely deserving!) 2014 medallists, nor to start a pointless argument about why this or that particular candidate missed out. I just think that we (or perhaps only I) should not lay much store by prizes, even one as respected as the Fields medal.

  11. efvm Says:

    “a cheer for Bhargava and an even louder one for Mirzakhani”

    I can understand cheering for Mirzakhani (or perhaps what her winning the prize represents), but I’m genuinely curious as to why Bhargava got a cheer versus the other winners. Anyone have a reason?

  12. vznvzn Says:

    just want to say, how great to see this rare insider view of the proceedings & enjoy the diversity of comments from topnotch mathematicians (also huge award winners) all the way to the korean usher who comments on the symbolism of the play (and the detail about Mirzakhani daughter is so adorable). its like the olympics of math. :D

    re prize dynamics/ politics, a subject that can be debated endlessly, some candid commentary/ links on that here wrt breakthrough prizes.

    let us see the prizes not as awarded to everyone that has reached some level or earned them, and where the difference between those who have one and those who have not in terms of talent/ accomplishment is less than hairs widths (and sometimes even mistaken in long 2020 retrospect), but instead as a limited/scarce resource that celebrates mathematics & pure research, itself not always subject (like all other fields) to unlimited or even copious resources. there is at times a darwinian aspect to all sciences because they are all about intellectual evolution… prizes can both amplify or conceal that….

  13. Fields medals & Nevinlinna prize 2014 | Turing Machine Says:

    […] 7. ICM2014 — opening ceremony | Gowers’s Weblog […]

  14. vznvzn Says:

    :star: postscript, now more coverage hot off the keyboard Fields medals/Nevanlinna prize 2014 with many links incl MSM refs, many to Mirzakhani. (does anyone know where to get Simons lecture?)

  15. Updates from ICM 2014 | Windows On Theory Says:

    […]  (ICM) 2014 in Seoul, and thought I would post a quick update from a TCS perspective. See Tim Gowers’s blog for a much more comprehensive account. There are several other TCS folks here, and I hope some […]

  16. Sandeep Thilakan Says:

    The comment about Mikhail Gromov was perfect. Having read just a tiny fraction of his work, I can say that he is one extreme mathematician just like Tim puts it. Amazing depth and originality. It would be wonderful if you can mention about any personal experiences with Misha.

  17. Dau Villa Says:

    “a cheer for Bhargava and an even louder one for Mirzakhani”

    I can see, that I am not the only one left wandering as to why cheer Bhargava.

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