Impressions of the International Congress of Mathematicians

October 15, 1998

Berlin, August 18-27, 1998

Philip J. Davis

After registering on Monday afternoon, August 17, a process that was fast and efficient, and getting all the relevant Congress documents, along with a green souvenir tote bag bearing the Congress logo (see inset) and, what was most convenient, a universal transportation pass for all the Berlin subways and buses, I went back to my hotel to sleep off a bit of my jet lag. Oh yes, I forgot to mention one other thing I acquired----a stack of bound books of talk summaries that had been prepared in advance, courtesy of fax and e-mail. The stack was fully six inches high and weighed enough to stress both me and the green bag seriously.

My first Congress activity was to attend a show on mathematics, art, and architecture, ancillary to the Congress and held in the as yet uncompleted Ludwig-Erhard-Haus in central Berlin. The individual pieces on display, some of them by sculptors whose names I recognized, suffered, I thought, from déjà-vu-itis. The building itself was far more interesting: starkly geometric, with internal design features that would bring joy to the hearts of knot-topologists, and somewhat brutal visually. Against an exterior wall of the building is a huge parabolic arch, seemingly plastered there but actually a load-bearing structural member. The parabola was somewhat reminiscent of our famous Golden Arches-of which there are plenty in Berlin-but it lacked the light, soaring quality of the Saarinen Arch in St. Louis.

The Ludwig-Erhard-Haus, a commercial information center, named after the Federal Chancellor and Minister of Economics from 1949 to 1963, came to epitomize for me the new, unified, rebuilt and dynamic Berlin. These are adjectives I kept hearing and seeing throughout my stay in Berlin. To which list I would add my own adjective: intense.

My second Congress activity---and in this article I will not get beyond the second---was to attend the formal opening ceremonies on Tuesday morning. They were held in the ICC, or International Convention Center, which, as you can well imagine, is an immense modern auditorium containing many individual function areas. As regards attendance I heard the number 3500 mentioned, so that no smaller facility would have sufficed.

This was the ceremony at which, getting the Congress off with a real bang, the Fields Medals and the Nevanlinna Prize were awarded. On the stage there appeared, at one time and another, David Mumford, the president of the International Mathematical Union; Karl-Heinz Hoffman, the president of the German Mathematical Society; the members of the Organizing Committee and the prize committees; the president of the Berlin University of Technology; federal, state, and local governmental officials, including the Federal Minister of Education and the Governing Mayor of Berlin; and other assorted politicians. And I should not forget the members of a small symphonic ensemble who performed three pieces. Offstage, somewhere, everywhere, the national and internal TV cameras and the newspaper reporters found their targets.

The speakers at the podium were of course televised and their images projected onto huge side screens (no further need for opera glasses). From time to time, the speakers paused while relevant videos were interpolated. In particular, I recall one video boosting the wonders of the new Berlin. Toward the end, the prizes were awarded. Fields Medals went to Richard B. Borcherds of Cambridge University (Kac-Moody algebras and automorphic forms); W. Timothy Gowers of Cambridge (Banach space theory and combinatorics); Maxim Kontsevich of IHES Bures-sur-Yvette (mathematical physics, algebraic geometry, and topology); and Curtis T. McMullen of Harvard University (complex dynamics and hyperbolic geometry). The Nevanlinna prize went to Peter W. Shor of AT&T Labs for his work in quantum computation and computational geometry. A special prize was awarded to Andrew Wiles, of Fermat fame, who due to a rigid algorithmization of the age parameter did not qualify for a Fields.

All of this went off absolutely smoothly. No mikes went dead or developed feedback screech, no images were projected upside down, backward, or out of sync with what the current speaker was saying. The photo ops were not noticeably intrusive. I suppose that for all of this we have to thank the team of multimedia specialists who had been employed to hardwire and choreograph this complex event. The members of the arrangement committee and their staff clearly had worked hard and successfully for several years, and they deserve the commendation and thanks of the world mathematical community.

And yet. As I sat high up in the right-field bleachers (so to speak), I got the impression that what I was witnessing-media-wise-was a combination of the 1996 U.S. political conventions and some of the ceremonies from the Olympic Games, minus the tiered platforms for the Gold, the Silver, and the Bronze. In our multimedia age, mathematics has become a commodity and the world of mathematics is joining showbiz in a serious way. I suppose it has to. Do you think that we could impress the public and the politicians by showing our stuff in a sandbox, as Archimedes is often depicted as having done, or on the back of a napkin at the Scottish Cafe in Lwow? Quite apart from the contemporary qualities of general publicity, I reported in these pages not long ago ("Mickey Meets the Stealth," April 1998) how mathematics applied to entertainment is now joining hands with mathematics applied to defense.

At the end of the ceremonies, with the push of a button, the partition behind the speakers was removed, magically opening up a vast area and revealing tables already laden with food and drink sufficient for the hungry mathematical multitude. We were invited by Martin Grötschel, president of the Organizing Committee, to cross the stage and come and get it.

An announcement of prize winners is awaited with great interest and some tension; it is a press event. But for me, the highlight of the morning's program was an unscheduled occurrence. Hans-Jürgen Ewers, an economist and the president of the Technical University at Berlin, was at the podium welcoming the Congress to his university. Suddenly, to the astonishment of the gathered thousands, he diverged from his prepared script and laced into the assembled politicians, charging them with having gone back on their promises to his and all other German universities.

The video cameras were not focused on the politicians and government officials, so I could not see on the side screens whether their faces turned red. Nor were the politicians' collars wired up to reveal instantaneous jumps in cutaneous temperature, but I would venture that they were considerable.

The background of this outburst was explained to me later in the week by Christine Keitel-Kreidt, a mathematician and vice president of the Free University of Berlin. The politicians, she said, have for a long time paid only lip service to higher education. If the new dynamic spirit in unified Germany includes a wish to restore the scientific preeminence the country had before World War II, the politicians are not taking proper steps. Two separate things, she said, were involved in Ewers's emotional outburst: money and control (universal complaints!). Money is very tight; the Free University, for example, is under pressure to downsize its faculty from the eight hundred professors currently in place to four hundred by 2003. Replacements would be allowed only if a whole discipline were endangered. Moreover, if a university hustles and finds funds from sources other than the government, the government reduces its allocation correspondingly.

As regards control, there is too much regulation of all sorts; the piper's payer has been calling the tune much too closely. Despite promises to relax control, even trivialities, such as the supply of paper and, rather less trivially, the supply of computers, have been regulated from above. A Kuratorium consisting of four professors, four politicians, and four distinguished citizens stands between the administration of each university and the government. And the Kuratorium often says "no" to the university administration.

A surprise of a different nature came to me during a light supper with four mathematical friends, all of whom were either German or Austrian. Several of them expressed the opinion that too much emphasis was being placed on the creation of stars and heros via prizes. This might be appropriate, they ventured, for Hollywood or for sports, but for mathematics?

I was surprised because I had thought, quite stupidly perhaps, that I was the only one who harbored such views. Over the years, although I had received a number of mathematical prizes, my feelings about the process were ambivalent. Considering prizes quite generally, I have been aware of their history, their utility, and their extensive downside (mirror, mirror, on the wall!).

What distresses me is that prizes in science have gradually been turned into entertainment as regards the media; moreover, as a corollary, a system centered on the identification of stars appears as the principal mode by which mathematics marches on. The star system also skews university hiring away from teaching considerations.

There is a genuine dilemma here: As William James pointed out, without individual genius the community stagnates, and without the participation of the community, genius has no arena. It amuses me to read publishers' ads in which certain novels are plugged as having been short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. And I wonder whether, in the not-too-distant future, the short lists and even the medium short lists for the Nobel might not be made public.

But if the whole community were added to make up a long short list, then, as the old quip put it, everybody would be somebody, and hence nobody would be anybody.

Once the opening ceremonies were over, the real meat of the Congress was then served up in the form of about 1400 individual talks and posters. I estimated that with luck I might be about to comprehend 2% of them. For two successive weeks, in the halls of a single university, ICM'98 perpetuated the myth of the unity of mathematics; which myth is supposedly validated by the repetition of that most weaselly of rhetorical phrases: "Well, in principle, you could understand all the talks."

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


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