Archive for March, 2011

April 1st comes a few days early

March 28, 2011

Most of the time I’m reasonably proud to be British. Not in an excessive way I hope: indeed, to be too unquestioningly proud to be British is somehow not British — part of our national character is to take a kind of masochistic pleasure in the country’s failures, such as being beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegians, never winning a tennis Grand Slam, regularly going out of the soccer World Cup at the quarter-final stage, letting other countries derive the economic benefit from research we do that has practical applications, etc. etc.

But recently two things have happened that are highly relevant to academic life and that make being British a straightforward embarrassment. One is that an immigration quota system has recently been introduced that has absolutely nothing to do with national interest and everything to do with pandering to the unsavoury instincts of certain kinds of voter. As a result of this system, many academics who would like to visit this country have been unable to do so because they have been denied visas, and others have had to be removed from shortlists for academic jobs (sometimes not because they have been denied visas but because the appointments committees in question cannot afford to offer a job to somebody who might discover a few months later that they are unable to accept it).

Milnor wins 2011 Abel Prize

March 23, 2011

I have just completed one of the more difficult assignments of my mathematical life: to give a popular presentation of the work of John Milnor immediately following the formal announcement that he was the winner of this year’s Abel Prize. Of course, in one way the task is very straightforward, since Milnor is a mathematical giant and has a large number of fascinating theorems to his name. However, these theorems are not in my field, the talk was supposed to last fifteen minutes, and my immediate audience included not necessarily mathematical journalists who were supposed to understand what I was saying. If you go to the Abel Prize website, you will find a webcast of the whole announcement, including my talk (which includes a telephone interview with Milnor himself), and also a link to a written version of the talk, in which I go into more detail. But if you are a mathematician, then be warned that even the more detailed version is more about the background to Milnor’s results than to the results themselves. And since I was obliged to prepare the talk in secret, I cannot rule out that some of what I have said is wrong, or gives the wrong emphasis.