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Topic: How Math Got Its 'Nobel'
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,619
Registered: 12/3/04
How Math Got Its 'Nobel'
Posted: Aug 10, 2014 6:43 PM
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From The New York Times / Sunday Review, Sunday, August 10, 2014. See
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/how-math-got-its-nobel-.html?_r=0
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Sunday Review

How Math Got Its 'Nobel'

By Michael. J. Barany MICHAEL J. BARANY

ON Wednesday in Seoul, the International Congress of Mathematicians
will announce the winners of the Fields Medal. First awarded in Oslo
in 1936, the medal is given every four years to two to four
mathematicians. It is considered the "Nobel Prize" of mathematics
(even the organizers of the congress call it that), filling a gap
left by Alfred Nobel, who did not include mathematics among the
prizes endowed on his death in 1896.

Many mathematicians will tell you that Nobel omitted mathematics from
his prizes to spite the Swedish mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler, a
rival, and that the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields
created the award that bears his name to correct the omission. But
this is a myth that needs debunking. First of all, there is no good
evidence of a feud between Nobel and Mittag-Leffler. Nobel omitted
mathematics simply because it was not as important to him as other
endeavors were.

As for Fields, he proposed his award not as a substitute for the
Nobel Prize but as a symbol of international unity. In the aftermath
of World War I, the scientific community was fractured by national
rivalries. When the International Mathematical Union was first
founded, in 1920, it explicitly banned representatives of the former
Central Powers. Fields so wanted "to avoid invidious comparisons"
among candidates for his award that he suggested it be presented
"with a view to encouraging further achievement" rather than just
honoring past accomplishments. (This remark would later be used to
justify the award's age limit of 40, though Fields never intended the
medal just for the young.)

For decades the Fields Medal was relatively obscure. In 1950, neither
of the two recipients had heard of the award before being told that
he had won it. So how did it become the Nobel Prize of mathematics?
The true story helps illuminate the often neglected intersection of
mathematics and politics.

On Aug. 5, 1966, The San Francisco Examiner reported that Stephen
Smale, a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley, who
had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities
Committee in connection with his anti-Vietnam War activism, had fled
to Moscow. But Mr. Smale hadn't fled. The subpoena hadn't even
reached him, for he was already in Europe. As Mr. Smale's colleagues
hurried to clarify to the press, he was on his way to attend the
International Congress of Mathematicians, in Moscow, where he was to
receive the Fields Medal on the day he was meant to testify.

Some saw Mr. Smale's award as evidence of Communist affinities. "U.S.
Math Teacher Wins Soviet Award" announced The Gettysburg Times. But
The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times saw things
differently. They credited Mr. Smale's colleagues' account, quoted in
The Associated Press, that he was abroad to accept "mathematics'
closest award to the Nobel Prize" - an exaggeration that, by
enhancing Mr. Smale's stature, helped insulate him from criticism.
The scandal faded.

The following year, Mr. Smale returned to the headlines. It appeared
that his funding from the National Science Foundation had been
blocked by parties unhappy with his antiwar activism. But once again,
the claim that Mr. Smale held the equivalent of a Nobel Prize helped
to protect his cause, and he retained his funding. The close
association between the Fields Medal and the Nobel Prize, an artifact
of Cold War politics, would persist to this day.

Because mathematics seems remote from "real world" concerns, people
tend to overlook how intertwined mathematics and politics can be. In
Mr. Smale's case, his mathematical work was not directly tied to his
political activities (though his renown as a mathematician created
opportunities for his political engagement). But mathematics itself
can be political, too. After World War II, the United States military
funded elite mathematical research in areas ranging from topology and
differential equations to operations research and game theory.

Mathematicians have been some of the military-industrial complex's
biggest beneficiaries, but also some of its fiercest critics. Today,
in the wake of the controversy about the National Security Agency's
surveillance, mathematicians are debating how they should relate to
the agency, one of their largest employers and a longtime funder of
their work. The Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin expressed the
frustration of many of his peers when he said recently that
mathematicians "should refuse to work for the N.S.A. until they both
follow the U.S. Constitution and demonstrate responsible use of
mathematical tools."

Mr. Smale is not a mathematician who merely happened to oppose the
Vietnam War, just as others are not mathematicians who merely happen
to work for (or oppose) the N.S.A. Mathematics is a critical part of
who they are and what they do, for better and sometimes for worse.

To say mathematics is political is not to diminish it, but rather to
recognize its greater meaning, promise and responsibilities.
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Michael J. Barany is a graduate student in the history of science at Princeton.
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 10, 2014, on page
SR12 of the New York edition with the headline: How Math Got Its
'Nobel'.
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