Archive for February, 2022

Are we united in anything?

February 10, 2022 5 comments

Unity here, unity there, unity shmunity is everywhere. You just can’t avoid hearing about it. Every day, no matter the subject, somebody is going to call for it. Be it in Ukraine or Canada, Taiwan or Haiti, everyone is calling for unity. President Biden in his Inaugural Address called for it eight times by my count. So did former President Bush on every recent societal issue: here, there, everywhere. So did Obama and Reagan. I am sure just about every major US politician made the same call at some point. And why not? Like the “world peace“, the unity is assumed to be a universal good, or at least an inspirational if quickly forgettable goal.

Take the Beijing Olympic Games, which proudly claims that their motto “demonstrates unity and a collective effort” towards “the goal of pursuing world unity, peace and progress”. Come again? While The New York Times isn’t buying the whole “world unity” thing and calls the games “divisive” it still thinks that “Opening Ceremony [is] in Search of Unity.” Vox is also going there, claiming that the ceremony “emphasized peace, world unity, and the people around the world who have battled the pandemic.” So it sounds to me that despite all the politics, both Vox and the Times think that this mythical unity is something valuable, right? Well, ok, good to know…

Closer to home, you see the same themes said about the International Congress of Mathematicians to be held in St. Petersburg later this year. Here is Arkady Dvorkovich, co-chair of the Executive Organizing Committee and former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia: “It seems to us that Russia will be able to truly unite mathematicians from all over the world“. Huh? Are you sure? Unite in what exactly? Because even many Russian mathematicians are not on board with having the ICM in St. Petersburg. And among those from “all over the world”, quite a few are very openly boycotting the congress, so much that even the IMU started to worry. Doesn’t “unity” mean “for all”, as in ?

Unity of mathematics

Frequent readers of this blog can probably guess where I stand on the “unity”. Even in my own area of Combinatorics, I couldn’t find much of it at all. I openly mocked “the feeling of unity of mathematics” argument in favor of some conjectures. I tried but could never understand Noga Alon’s claim that “mathematics should be considered as one unit” other than a political statement by a former PC Chair of the 2006 ICM.

So, about this “unity of mathematics”. Like, really? All of mathematics? Quick, tell me what exactly do the Stochastic PDEs, Algebraic Number Theory, Enumerative Combinatorics and Biostatistics have in common? Anything comes to mind? Anything at all? Ugh. Let’s make another experiment. Say, I tell you that only two of these four areas have Fields medals. Can you guess which ones? Oh, you can? Really, it was that easy?? Doesn’t this cut against all of this alleged “unity”?

Anyway, let’s be serious. Mathematics is not a unit. It’s not even a “patterned tapestry” of connected threads. It’s a human endeavor. It’s an assorted collection of scientific pursuits unconstrained by physical experiments. Some of them are deep, some shallow, some are connected to others, and some are motivated by real world applications. You check the MSC 2020 classification, and there is everything under the sun, 224 pages in total. It’s preposterous to look for and expect to find some unity there. There is none to be found.

Let me put it differently. Take poetry. Like math, it’s a artistic endeavor. Poems are written by the people and for the people. To enjoy. To recall when in need or when in a mood. Like math papers. Now, can anyone keep a straight face and say “unity of poetry“? Of course not. If anything, it’s the opposite. In poetry, having a distinctive voice is celebrated. Diverse styles are lauded. New forms are created. Strong emotions are evoked. That’s the point. Why would math be any different then?

What exactly unites us?

Mathematicians, I mean. Not much, I suppose, to the contrary of math politicians’ claims:

I like to think that increasing breadth in research will help the mathematical sciences to recognize our essential unity. (Margaret Wright, SIAM President, 1996)

Huh? Isn’t this like saying that space exploration will help foster cross-cultural understanding? Sounds reasonable until you actually think about what is being said…

Even the style of doing research is completely different. Some prove theorems, some make heavy computer computations, some make physical experiments, etc. At the end, some write papers and put them on the arXiv, some write long books full of words (e.g. mathematical historians), some submit to competitive conferences (e.g. in theoretical computer science), some upload software packages and experimental evidence to some data depositary. It’s all different. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal.

In truth, very little unites us. Some mathematicians work at large state universities, others at small private liberal arts colleges with a completely different approach to teaching. Some have a great commitment to math education, some spend every waking hour doing research, while others enjoy frequent fishing trips thanks to tenure. Some go into university administration or math politics, while others become journal editors.

In truth, only two things unites us — giant math societies like the AMS and giant conferences like ICMs and joint AMS/MAA/SIAM meetings. Let’s treat them separately, but before we go there, let’s take a detour just to see what an honest unrestricted public discourse sounds like:

What to do about the Olympics

The answer depends on who you ask, obviously. And opinions are abound. I personally don’t care other than the unfortunate fact that 2028 Olympics will be hosted on my campus. But we in math should learn how to be critical, so here is a range of voices that I googled. Do with them as you please.

Some are sort of in favor:

I still believe the Olympics contribute a net benefit to humanity. (Beth Daley, The Conversation, Feb. 2018)

Some are positive if a little ambivalent:

The Games aren’t dead. Not by a longshot. But it’s worth noting that the reason they are alive has strikingly little to do with games, athletes or medals. (L. Jon Wertheim, Time, June 2021)

Some like The New York Times are highly critical, calling it “absurdity”. Some are blunt:

More and more, the international spectacle has become synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes. (Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic, Aug. 2021)

yet unwilling to make the leap and call it quits. Others are less shy:

You can’t reform the Olympics. The Olympics are showing us what they are, and what they’ve always been. (Gia Lappe and Jonny Coleman, Jacobin, July 2021)


Boil down all the sanctimonious drivel about how edifying the games are, and you’re left with the unavoidable truth: The Olympics wreck lives. (Natalie Shure, The New Republic, July 2021)

What is the ICM

Well, it’s a giant collective effort. A very old tradition. Medals are distributed. Lots of talks. Speakers are told that it’s an honor to be chosen. Universities issue press releases. Yes, like this one. Rich countries set up and give away travel grants. Poor countries scramble to pay for participants. The host country gets dubious PR benefits. A week after it’s over everyone forgets it ever happened. Life goes on.

I went to just one ICM, in Rio in 2018. It was an honor to be invited. But the experience was decidedly mixed. The speakers were terrific mathematicians, all of them. Many were good speakers. A few were dreadful in both content and style. Some figured they are giving talks in their research seminar rather than to a general audience, so I left a couple of such talks in middle. Many talks in parallel sections were not even recorded. What a shame!

The crowds were stupefying. I saw a lot of faces. Some were friendly, of people I hadn’t seen in years, sometimes 20 years. Some were people I knew only by name. It was nice to say hello, to shake their hand. But there were thousands more. Literally. An ocean of people. I was drowning. This was the worst place for an introvert.

While there, I asked a lot of people how did they like the ICM. Some were electrified by the experience and had a decent enough time. Some looked like fish out of the water — when asked they just stared at me incomprehensively silently saying “What are you, an idiot?” Some told me they just went to the opening ceremony and left for the beach for the rest of the ICM. Assaf Naor said that he loved everything. I was so amused by that, I asked if I could quote him. “Yes,” he said, “you can quote me: I loved absolutely every bit of the ICM”. Here we go — not everyone is an introvert.

Whatever happened at the ICM

Unlike the Olympics, math people tend to be shy in their ICM criticism. In his somewhat unfortunately titled but otherwise useful historical book “Mathematicians of the World, Unite!” the author, Guillermo Curbera, largely stays exuberant about the subject. He does mention some critical stories, like this one:

Charlotte Angas Scott reported bluntly on the presentation of papers in the congress, which in her opinion were “usually shockingly bad” since “instead of speaking to the audience, [the lecturer] reads his paper to himself in a monotone that is sometimes hurried, sometimes hesitating, and frequently bored . . . so that he is often tedious and incomprehensible.” (Paris 1900 Chapter, p. 24)

Curbera does mention in passing that the were some controversies: Grothendieck refused to attend ICM Moscow in 1966 for political reasons, Margulis and Novikov were not allowed by the Soviet Union to leave the country to receive their Fields medals. Well, nobody’s perfect, right?

Most reports I found on the web are highly positive. Read, for example, Gil Kalai’s blog posts on the ICM 2018. Everything was great, right? Even Doron Zeilberger, not known for holding his tongue, is mostly positive (about the ICM Beijing in 2002). He does suggest that the invited speakers “should go to a ‘training camp‘” for some sort of teacher training re-education, apparently not seeing the irony, or simply under impression of all those great things in Beijing.

The only (highly controversial) criticism that I found was from Ulf Persson who starts with:

The congresses are by now considered to be monstrous affairs very different from the original intimate gatherings where group pictures could be taken.

He then continues to talk about various personal inconveniences, his misimpressions about the ICM setting, the culture, the city, etc., all in a somewhat insensitive and rather disparaging manner. Apparently, this criticism and misimpressions earned a major smackdown from Marcelo Viana, the ICM 2018 Organizing Committee Chair, who wrote that this was a “piece of bigotry” by somebody who is “poorly informed”. Fair enough. I agree with that and with the EMS President Volker Mehrmann who wrote in the same EMS newsletter that the article was “very counterproductive”. Sure. But an oversized 4 page reaction to an opinion article in a math newsletter from another continent seem indicative that the big boss hates criticism. Because we need all that “unity”, right?

Anyway, don’t hold your breath to see anything critical about the ICM St. Petersburg later this year. Clearly, everything is going to be just fantastic, nothing controversial about it. Right…

What to do about the ICM

Stop having them in the current form. It’s the 21st century, and we are starting the third year of the pandemic. All talks can be moved online so that everyone can watch them either as they happen, or later on YouTube. Let me note that I’ve sat in the bleachers of these makeshift 1000+ people convention center auditoriums where the LaTeX formulas are barely visible. This is what the view is like:

Note that the ICM is not like a sports event — there is literally nothing at stake. Also, there are usually no questions afterwards anyway. You are all better off watching the talks later on your laptop, perhaps even on a x1.5 speed. To get the idea, imagine watching this talk in a huge room full of people…. Even better, we can also spread out these online lectures across the time zones so that people from different countries can participate. Something like this World Relay in Combinatorics.

Really, all that CO2 burned to get humans halfway across the world to seat in a crowded space is not doing anyone any good. If the Nobel Prizes can be awarded remotely, so can the Fields medals. Tourism value aside, the amount of meaningful person-to-person interaction is so minimal in a large crowd, I am struggling to find a single good reason at all to have these extravaganzas in-person.

What to do about the AMS

I am not a member of any math societies so it’s not my place to tell them what to do. As a frequent contributor to AMS journals and a former editor of one of them, I did call on the AMS to separate its society business form the publishing, but given that their business model hinges on the books and journals they sell, this is unlikely. Still, let me make some quick observations which might be helpful.

The AMS is clearly getting less and less popular. I couldn’t find the exact membership numbers, but their “dues and outreach” earnings have been flat for a while. Things are clearly not going in the right direction, so much that the current AMS President Ruth Charney sent out a survey earlier this week asking people like me why do we not want to join.

People seem to realize that they have many different views on all thing math related and are seeking associations which are a better fit. One notable example is the Just Mathematics Collective which has several notable boycott initiatives. Another is the Association for Mathematical Research formed following various controversies. Note that there is a great deal of disagreements between these two, see e.g. here, there and there.

I feel these are very good developments. It’s healthy to express disagreements on issues you consider important. And while I disagree with other things in the article below, I do agree with this basic premise:

Totalitarian countries have unity. Democratic republics have disagreement. (Kevin Williamson, Against Unity, National Review, Jan. 2021)

So everyone just chill. Enjoy diverse views and opinions. Disagree with the others. And think twice before you call for “unity” of anything, or praise the ephemeral “unity of mathematics”. There is none.