ICM2014 — first impressions

I’m writing this at 6:22am in my hotel room in Seoul, which is in a hotel that is right next to the conference centre, to the point where you don’t have to go out of doors to get from one to the other. I’ve just had a good night’s sleep, even though in French time (which is what I was used to until the day before yesterday — if that concept still means anything) my entire night has been during the day time, and now is about the time I’d be thinking of going to bed. I feel a bit strange, and I may have trouble staying awake during an opening ceremony that lasts several hours and then a pretty full programme of talks later in the day. But during the latter I’ll be taking notes in order to be able to blog about them in reasonable detail, so at least I’ll have something to keep my brain from relaxing too much.

The flight over was not exactly fun — a night flight never is — but I watched two passable films, got a little bit of work done, missed out on the hot towels (which was good news because it meant I must have been properly asleep), and had possibly the best inflight meal of my life. The last was probably a well-known dish but it happened not to be known to me. I had a choice between beef, chicken, and bibimbap, with the first two being western and the third Korean. That was a no-brainer, but when I asked for the bibimbap I was given not just the bibimbap itself but a leaflet explaining how to assemble it. The steps were as follows.

1. Please put the steamed rice into the “Bibimbap” bowl.

2. Add gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste).
Spicy level 1. (Mild): 1/2 of tube.
Spicy level 2. (Hot): Full tube.

3. Add sesame oil.

4. Mix the “Bibimbap” together.

5. Enjoy the “Bibimbap” with side dish and soup.

I squeezed out almost all the tube of hot pepper sauce and the result was pleasantly hot without threatening to be painful. It was also delicious and substantial. The soup, which I think may have been seaweed soup, was also very good.

I now regret choosing omelette for breakfast when I could have had something called rice porridge, which also looked interesting. (The omelette wasn’t.)

The one other notable thing about the flight was that the plane was so vast that it took off before it felt as though it had picked up enough speed to do so. It also satisfied the “law of turbulence”: that no matter how big a plane is, it gets buffeted about just as much as any other plane. I wonder if there is some scaling law there: for instance, the faster you go, the more dramatic the changes in pressure and wind direction, or something like that.

Seoul was fairly similar to what I expected, though a bit more spread out perhaps. My impression of the place is gleaned from just one bus journey (over an hour) from airport to hotel. Maybe I’ll have more to say about it later.

When I arrived, I immediately went to register. That was quick and efficient, and I picked up my unusually tasteful conference bag, which resembles a large handbag. I had a choice between black and brown, and went daringly for the latter. It had the usual kinds of things in it, with one exception: no notepad. (For the younger generation out there, that means a number of sheets of paper conveniently joined together, rather than some kind of tablet computer.) That will make my note-taking work slightly harder, but I’ll think of something.

The first event of the ICM was an opening reception, which took place in a huge room in the conference centre. There was an extraordinary amount of food there, and also beer, which was very welcome. The food was good, and some of it interestingly Korean, but it didn’t quite reach the heights of the bibimbap (or should that be “Bibimbap”?).

Although I’m not strictly forced to leave the hotel, I’m not sure I’m ready to pay $40 for breakfast, so I’m going to nip out quickly and try to find some coffee and a bun or something like that. I noticed from the bus that there were lots of quite promising looking coffee places: it will certainly be a bonus if, as looks as though will be the case, Korea is a country where one can get a good cup of coffee. And then it’s off to the opening ceremony. More later.

Actually, more sooner, because I’ve just remembered that I was going to mention an amusing story that I was told at the reception yesterday. Apparently the Pope is visiting Korea, and asked for an audience with the president today. And the president told him that he would have to wait till tomorrow, because today she was otherwise occupied. It’s heartening to know that mathematics takes precedence over the Catholic church.

And slightly more again: I have a bit of battery left on my laptop, which I was allowed to bring into the opening ceremony. As was advised, I got here very much earlier than the start time, which makes an already long ceremony a significant chunk longer. We’ve been treated to Beatles songs arranged for some Korean instrument that I don’t know the name of — it looks a bit like a lyre but sits horizontally on the lap. Meanwhile, it seems that the names of the Fields Medallists have, disappointingly, been leaked. Despite that, I’ve managed to maintain my ignorance. (To be more accurate, I am now certain about three of the names but still don’t know who the fourth person is. We’ll see whether I can avoid learning that before it is announced.)

36 Responses to “ICM2014 — first impressions”

  1. Mick Says:

    Maybe it’s just a typo, but the Korean president is a woman.

  2. BQ Says:

    Can you find out why the Fields medal winners were announced before the opening ceremony?

  3. Daniel Says:

    Maybe it’s just a typo, but the pope is a man: “And the president told him that [s]he would have to wait till tomorrow, …”

  4. BQ Says:

    Gayageum or kayagum?

    • gowers Says:

      I subsequently learned that it was indeed Gayageum, which I was told is an instrument for women only, and that there is a male version that is longer and has fewer strings.

  5. Yiftach Barnea Says:

    ICM not IMC in the title.

    Oops — corrected now.

  6. Roy Abrams Says:

    Stay hydrated.

  7. Scott Morrison Says:

    I heard, second hand, that someone responsible for the ICM webpages had put up a page containing the Fields medallists, thinking that no one would find it because there were no incoming links, but someone guessed the URL.

    • BQ Says:

      The names were added to the wikipedia page yesterday, two days before the opening ceremony, and then the page was updated to remove the names. See this page.

    • gowers Says:

      It’s particularly ironic because at the General Assembly they apparently had a debate about whether to announce future Fields Medals well in advance of the ICM.

  8. Richard Baron Says:

    You mention the in-flight breakfast. I have a view, based on a sample of one person, that on a long night flight from west to east it is much better to refuse the breakfast. Your digestive system thinks it is still 0100 or 0200, and confusing it with food seems to make the jet-lag a good deal worse.

  9. Atila Smith Says:

    What’s so heartening about the precedence of mathematics over the Catholic church?

  10. Atila Smith Says:

    Yes, it’s about time grown-ups put in their place the childish beliefs of Pascal, Descartes, Cauchy, and thousands of others . Great theology to see Catholicism dismissed in one sneering line! Does your crisp judgment also apply to Islam, whose influence doesn’t seem to be diminishing?

    • Daniel Says:

      You’re allowed to have your own personal opinion on this matter. But this is a blog (mostly) about mathematics, and I (we?) would prefer not to read too much about religion here. Btw: I think Tim’s point was to make a joke, no more and no less.

  11. Christian Says:

    I must agree that it is wrong to assume that religious people cannot be outstanding mathematicians or scientists. In fact, while Atila Smith’s last comment focuses on known Catholics, if we extend the idea to known Christians, we should get rid of the contributions of Newton, Leibniz, Euler, Maxwell, Riemann, Gauss and Kurt Godel. Andrew Wiles’ father was a theologian but I haven’t found info about his own personal religious beliefs (I wouldn’t be surprised if he is also a believer). If we extend the idea of expelling religious people from the practice of mathematics, very few good results would be left. A lot of good mathematics would go away if the world were to “grow up” in the way implied by Gowers, or perhaps I misunderstood what he meant.

    I am not longing for the time of Western theocracies. Mixing religion and government was indeed a very bad idea, but the claim that religion is an obstacle to doing good science might be costing science a lot of great talent who decides to stay away from the atheists.

    Religion gives people a worldview. The only prerequisite to do science and mathematics is to believe that there is structure in mathematical ideas and the universe. Said “belief” is perfectly compatible, in fact it is a consequence, of believing in God. From where I stand, it is the atheists who have a lot explaining to do when it comes to justifying their own belief that there is immutable structure in the universe and mathematics that we humans can then discover.

    • timur Says:

      I don’t think by growing up prof. Gowers meant to get rid of everything that has been done by people who had religious beliefs. Please take it easy.

    • Christian Says:


      I learned long time ago not to read people’s minds. I must say that he has not rushed to clarify his remark.

      I am a math aficionado. I first learned about Gowers when I watched his “The Importance of Mathematics” talk available at the Clay Math Institute website. I agree with a lot of what he had to say there.

      I wasn’t very much aware of his political/world views, in fact I didn’t pay attention to the things he wrote outside mathematics, but then yesterday, after noticing his remark, I reviewed some of his Google+ posts which I find a bit disappointing. If I were a social conservative interested in doing professional mathematics -which I am not; and the names I provided above show that the history of mathematics is full of them- the last thing that I would do is to try to work with somebody like Timothy Gowers knowing that he would ridicule my sincerely held beliefs that have nothing to do with whether the Riemann hypothesis turns out to be true or false.

      All this to reiterate that this attitude of many in academia to disparage religion, specially social conservative beliefs, is having a detrimental effect on mathematics. Take somebody like Godel, which is a very recent example of a very religious mathematical genius. Do you think he would feel welcome today in Timothy Gowers’ world? Probably not. It will be mathematics’ loss if it manages to scare away the Godels or Newtons of tomorrow since people of that caliber will end up doing well in whatever thing they choose to work on.

    • Christian Says:

      BTW, my own approach to the compatibility of science and religion matches what MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson explains here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJmFj7vp_cI .

      Militant religion is bad but militant atheism is equally bad or worse. In fact, if we count the number of victims caused by theocracies and compare with the number of victims caused by atheist regimes (like the former Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s, or Mao’s China), militant atheism trumps militant religion as a deadly force.

      It is time for people to take a break to be sure, but that “take a break” applies fundamentally to the atheists in academia these days.

  12. Diana Says:

    I’m a conference bag aficionado, unfortunately not attending the ICM. Is there any chance you could post a photo? This bag sounds exciting.

    On the subject of food, I can recommend from experience the unpretentious Bibimbap House at 60 Mill Road. Their main weakness is being closed on Tuesday. I had three of their bibimbaps in a week… recently.

    • gowers Says:

      To think that I have been living just down the road from this dish without realizing it. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll see what I can do about the conference bag — an interesting specialism you have there.

    • Diana Says:

      I’ve obtained one of the conference bags. It *is* nice. I haven’t put it through its paces yet, but the mild trapezoid shape looks well suited to laptop + adapter, which straight up and down bags struggle with.

    • gowers Says:

      Sorry I didn’t get round to providing the photo!

    • Diana Says:

      In case of interest, here’s the (charmingly) low-tech bag from ICM 86 in Berkeley: https://twitter.com/DianaGillooly/status/504262649614729218. Like the Seoul bag, high marks for suitability to location and era. I don’t see this shape in contemporary bags. Okay, that’s enough from me on conference bags.

  13. Christian Says:

    Writing it here for clarity purposes.

    In fact, when I mentioned Godel I did it out of the blue because I was aware of his religious convictions. It seems that even him suffered scorn during his time,


    “The first is Gödel’s reticence. “Although he did not go to church,” his wife Adele told the logician Hao Wang shortly after Gödel’s death in 1978, he “was religious and read the Bible in bed every Sunday morning.” But fear of ridicule and professional isolation made him reluctant to talk about his faith. “Ninety percent of contemporary philosophers see their principal task to be that of beating religion out of men’s heads,” he wrote to his mother in 1961. ”

    You cannot make this stuff up!

  14. Christian Says:

    Continuing on the topic of intersection Christianity/modern science, try to remove from the history of science the contributions of those listed here,


    including by the Nobel Prize winners

    “According to 100 Years of Nobel Prizes a review of Nobel prizes award between 1901 and 2000 reveals that (65.4%) of Nobel Prizes Laureates, have identified Christianity in its various forms as their religious preference.[9] … Christians have won a total of 78.3% of all the Nobel Prizes in Peace,[10] 72.5% in Chemistry, 65.3% in Physics,[10] 62% in Medicine,[10] 54%”

    That’s quite a bit of science to discard only because their authors happened to be “Christian”.

    I wonder what is that Timothy Gowers thinks about this.

    • gowers Says:

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was saying that people with religious views can’t do good science. That’s obviously a false statement and I don’t subscribe to it.

    • Christian Says:

      Before I say anything else I reiterate that I support your efforts to popularize mathematics.

      Also, I am not qualified to judge the merits of a Fields Medal award, since my mathematical knowledge is not deep enough, but at the same time, I do believe that nobody gets one (or a scientific Nobel prize) without being the best of the best. So this discussion has nothing to do with your work as a mathematician or as a person who writes about mathematics for the public at large.

      With respect to my impression, I think that we might be facing one of those instances of two peoples divided by a common language (me an American not understanding you, a British).

      I am happy to learn that you think that religious people can do good science but then I do not understand what you mean by,

      “It’s heartening to know that mathematics takes precedence over the Catholic church”

      that you said meant,

      “It’s a sign that the world is growing up.”

      Growing up usually means leaving behind a framework that doesn’t work anymore when one does important things. When a child grows up and becomes an adult, he or she learns to live by the norms of adults, which are the norms that rule the world. A person cannot survive in the world of adults by playing by the rules children play.

      So the way I understood your two combined statements is to mean that in today’s world mathematics takes preference over the Catholic church, thus the world has grown up from a time in which the Catholic church was necessary to a world, now, in which it is not necessary anymore, because mathematics are more important (ie, if you know mathematics you don’t need to have Catholic beliefs). In American universities the Catholic church is usually used, the way you used it, as a token for Christianity and religion at large. Maybe your remark was directed at the Catholic church only in a way to mean that it is a good thing that other branches of Christianity are better than Roman Catholicism (I might even agree with this one).

      In any case, you haven’t clarified what you meant by those two sentences although I am happy to learn that you think that a person can be a good scientist all while holding religious beliefs. Perhaps you could clarify what that “growing up” means?

  15. Christian Says:

    And to elaborate,

    Imagine I am a Catholic doctoral student who takes his faith seriously, not some lapsed Catholic, at Cambridge. Suppose that I read about your research and I would love to work with you. Then I learn as well that you think that the world has grown up because the faith that I take seriously is not relevant anymore. Do you think I would even try to talk to you about becoming one of your students? What about if all my potential advisers turn out to think the way you do about the Catholic church, do you think I would have any interest in continuing my doctoral education?

    • gowers Says:

      I’ll reply to your last two questions, but this is a maths post so after that I’d rather not continue the discussion here.

      The “growing up” remark was a flippant way of saying that I think that in this day and age we should base our moral and political decisions on reasoning rather than on the way somebody interprets a holy book. For important decisions, mathematics can sometimes be very helpful. I recognise that religious beliefs may sometimes guide people to make very good decisions as well, but they also cause them to make bad decisions too, such as discriminating against gay people, opposing stem-cell research, and (in some extreme cases) opposing action against climate change. And even when the effect is positive, I think there is a fundamental difference between believing a false (as I see it) set of doctrines that as a by-product causes one to do something good, and using careful modelling and reasoning to make a decision that is correct but counterintuitive.

      As for your hypothetical doctoral-student scenario, I would hope that you would not discriminate against me on religious grounds, just as I would not discriminate against you on religious grounds. We would simply have to agree to differ on a matter that has nothing to do with doctoral education in mathematics.

      To reverse the situation, suppose I am an atheist doctoral student, interested in working with a particular supervisor. Suppose I discover that the religious beliefs of that supervisor imply that I will spend an eternity in hell after I die. I find that view repugnant, but it wouldn’t stop me wanting to work with that supervisor.

  16. Christian Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    I agree that this is probably not the best place to continue this conversation, but as evidence that the concerns of your hypothetical atheist student are non existent while the discrimination against believers in academia and industry is real, as you know I have provided an invalid email address for my comments because the last thing I am about to do is to talk candidly about these topics with an influential Fields Medalist!

    If Godel thought he could not be open about his own beliefs, despite the caliber of his work, imagine the rest of us who are not Godel. For a more recent example of the discrimination that exists against those who hold views considered anathema by the intelligentsia, which in this day and age happen to be religious people holding traditional values, I have a name for you : Brendan Eich.

    So if you are interested in following up, it will have to be anonymously here or somewhere else.

    I haven’t heard of anybody arguing against climate change on religious grounds :). My own position not to trust global warming alarmists is precisely scientific: they made a bunch of catastrophic predictions that failed to materialize and therefore I consider doomsday global warming falsified, which is not to say that I think that climate is not changing or that humans have nothing to do with said change, it is just that we do not know whether human activity impacts it significantly. Our climate models are still very primitive as to trust far reaching policy decisions on their very flawed predictions. A different position is that of those who are environmentalists (ie, worried about the environment with religious fervor) but that has nothing to do with what we know (in fact we don’t know) about climate science.

    With respect to the issue of gay marriage (since I do not know in this day and age anybody who thinks that gays should be discriminate against) and stem cell research, both touch areas that cannot be decided on mathematical/scientific grounds alone. Those who feel uncomfortable with saying that religion should play a role, at least would agree that ethics must play a role.

    Marriage is more than just an institution about who has sex with whom. The West bans polygamous marriages (although I am not sure how long this ban will last given the gay marriage movement) but it doesn’t mean that people are banned from having affairs with many partners at the same time. Similarly, even in the countries/states where gay marriage is legal, incestuous marriages are banned although scientifically speaking, banning the marriage between two brothers, two sisters, a father and a son or a mother and a daughter doesn’t make any sense.

    In the case of embryonic stem cell research -which is where the controversy lies not on stem cell research at large-, I would quote one of its pioneers James A. Thomson: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/22/science/22stem.html?_r=0

    ““If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.””

    Science and mathematics are totally orthogonal to ethics (to put it on mathematical terms, = 0) . While one might inform the other, scientific statements, like the veracity/falsehood of the Riemann hypothesis, have nothing to do with whether as a result of it being found to be true some guy is able to develop a deadly weapon. Similarly, that nuclear weapons were developed as a result of E=mc^2 has no bearing on the veracity of that equation. A lot of the animosity that exists against believers these days comes from the belief that is huge . That is obviously false. It is those of you who are influential who should stop perpetuating the myth and I think that comments like the “growing up” one do contribute to keeping the myth alive.

    • Christian Says:

      It looks like wordpress ate my formula, so here it comes. What I wanted to say is:

      \langle science, ethics \rangle = 0

      Or in other words, being a great scientist/mathematician says nothing about the person’s ethics (the reverse is also true, having great ethics says nothing about a person’s scientific/mathematical talent).

      For the most blunt, and recent, example of lack of ethics in mathematics we have the case of the priority dispute in the context of the Poincare conjecture.

  17. Amy Pang Says:

    Prof Gowers, which airline did you fly on? I’m going to Korea this summer for a conference, and would really like to have a good inflight meal. (I used to have bibimbap at Teri-Aki in Cambridge, and I loved it even though it was far from authentic.)

    • Amy Pang Says:

      Ah, I found a video of the inflight bibimbap on Youtube. When you get bibimbap in Cambridge, make sure you get the Dolsat (stone bowl) version, and don’t touch the rice around the edge of the bowl for the first 5 minutes or so. Then the rice sticks to the bowl and becomes crispy! Non crispy bibimbap is only half as good.

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