Archive for August 31st, 2010

ICM2010 — rest of day three

August 31, 2010

At some point earlier in the day — I forget exactly when — Oliver Riordan asked me whether I was going to a reception hosted by the British Council and EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council — an administrative body that decides how quite a bit of Britain’s science budget is spent). I had had an email invitation in the morning and not got round to replying to it, but Oliver said he was going over to an EPSRC stall in the large room where various publishers and other organizations had stalls, and would be happy to tell them I was coming, which they needed to know because it involved taking us to a hotel in the centre of town by bus. I thought, “Well, if Oliver’s going then I may as well go,” which turned out to be a good decision.

Also happening that evening was a performance of A Disappearing Number, a play by Théatre de Complicité, a British theatre company directed by, and co-founded by, Simon McBurney. If that name means nothing to you, you may still remember a seedy British diplomat in the film The Last King of Scotland. He was, or rather played, that diplomat. The play is partly about the Hardy-Ramanujan story, and has had several runs in Britain over the last two or three years, to great acclaim. Despite knowing Simon (about which more later) I had not got round to seeing it, but neither had I got round to getting a ticket for today’s performance while they were still available — which was OK because the play was on in Hyderabad both today and tomorrow.
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ICM2010 — Spielman, Csornyei, Lurie

August 31, 2010

I’ll begin this with a question: why is it that theoretical computer scientists are, on average, far better than other mathematicians at giving general-audience talks? Irit Dinur’s plenary lecture at the ICM was, as I have already said, excellent, but that kind of excellence seems to be the norm for theoretical computer scientists: I basically know, when I go to the TCS plenary lecture at an ICM, that I’m in for a treat. (But that is not the whole story at all. For example, I also know that if I’m at an additive combinatorics conference at which Ryan O’Donnell is speaking, then again I am guaranteed an extremely interesting, entertaining and comprehensible talk.)

Even by the exalted standards of theoretical computer scientists, Spielman’s talk was masterful. (If you’ve been reading all these posts, you may remember that I predicted this after hearing him answer a question at the post-opening-ceremony press conference. Well, my prediction was not just correct but hypercorrect.) He started by thanking all sorts of people who had inspired him to become a theoretical computer scientist, and even this he made interesting and amusing — for instance, he showed us a picture of one person, a high-school teacher or something, and ended a brief discussion of that person by saying, “And he was the one who made me want to become a mathematician.” And then after the next person he said, “And he was the one who made me want to become a computer scientist.” And at the end of the talk he somehow (in a way that I’ve now forgotten) brought the whole thing full circle and reminded us of these initial remarks about his early intellectual life.

During the talk, he marched about the stage, always talking to us, the audience, and never to his slides — it was as though he knew from memory what was in them, though there was something on the stage (other than the lectern) that may have been a display for the benefit of the speakers. I never quite got round to checking.
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