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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Politics and the Fields Medal

Last week, quite a few visitors came to my blog via a mathematical/political discussion on the website, conservapedia, with which I was unacquainted. As I am otherwise uninspired this week, I will make a few comments on the subject of their discussion: the influence of politics on the awarding of the Fields Medal.

The Fields Medal is often likened to the Nobel Prize. It is a prize awarded every four years to four or fewer mathematicians for outstanding contributions to mathematics. The (perhaps apocryphal) story told by mathematicians is that Swedish mathematician Mittag-Leffler had stolen Alfred Nobel's lover. When establishing his award, Nobel asked prominent mathematicians who would be the likely recipient of the first Nobel Prize in Mathematics. When told that Mittag-Leffler was a leading candidate, Nobel decided there would be no Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Nobel never did marry, and he never endowed a prize in mathematics. Mathematicians all believe this story because they are keenly aware that nothing attracts the opposite sex like mathematical expertise. John Fields subsequently established his prize to correct this unfortunate state of affairs.

The question raised on the above mentioned political site was: what role does politics play in the selection of the Fields Medalist? We are all keenly aware of the role of politics in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to such great humanitarians as Yasser Arafat and Al Gore. Moreover, many mathematicians and physicists have suggested to me that politics plays a strong role in the selection of MacArthur Prize winners. Does politics play a similar role in selection of the Fields Medalists?

I have never seen evidence of nor heard any mathematician voice suspicion of statist versus individualist, left versus right, etc. politics in the selection of the Fields Medalists. (The location of the award ceremony, however, is a different story). There is, however, no abstract linear ordering of mathematical achievement. Some work is so spectacular that there is no question that it merits a Fields Medal. In other cases, choices have to be made among several excellent candidates. I have heard complaints from mathematicians working in fields whose practitioners have rarely been recognized with Fields Medals. They note that the prize committee is dominated by mathematicians in fields X,Y, and Z, and that fields X,Y, and Z receive most of the prizes. If these fields are the most important and the most active, then it is natural and appropriate that they dominate both committee and prize, but who decides that this is the case? Various committees have to make these decisions, and we should not be surprised to learn that there is lobbying for various fields of mathematics to be given greater consideration. I do not consider recognition of the existence of such politics to be a criticism. It is simply the observation, once again, that mathematics is a human enterprise and therefore subject to the dynamics of human interaction.

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