Back

Back now from vacation. On the global warming front, I can report that Northern Norway has gotten rather warm, Svalbard is still pretty cold.

While I was away the big mathematics news was from the ICM. As everyone expected, one of the Fields medalists was Peter Scholze. I was surprised to find a blog post of mine quoted about this in the NY Times, since normally the way this works is that journalists are told who the winners are in advance, and then contact experts in the field (which I’m definitely not one of) for quotes. Some tweets from Davide Castelvecchi at Nature about the unusual embargo rules may provide some explanation:

The whole situation was surreal from the beginning: the organizers gave reporters advance notice of the winners, but on condition that we would not contact them — even though the winners had already been told long in advance.

They also made no other sources available. In other words, we were supposed to write about these difficult concepts without talking to any experts.

Oh and I forgot to say: The email with the names of the winners had no information whatsoever on why they won – in other words, no prize citations.

I suspect one reason for the unusual rules is that the ICM people had decided to concentrate on getting stories out through Quanta magazine, which ran the results here. The stories are very well done, and Quanta magazine is great, but a more usual process involving the rest of the science journalism press would have been a good idea.

One other big piece of news from the ICM was the choice of St. Petersburg over Paris as the site for the 2022 ICM. I was sorry to hear this. Perhaps it’s just that I’d rather have an excuse to go to Paris than one to go to St. Petersburg. It does seem to me though that in these worrisome times, when offered the choice between the world’s most active opponent of liberal democracy and one of the great remaining healthy liberal democracies, the other choice than the one the IMU made would have been the better one. My understanding is that Russia offered twice as much money, and that many feel that was the deciding factor.

Update: I hadn’t realized that the problems with the IMU embargo this year were not new, they were much the same as the problems four years ago with the announcement of the 2014 prizes. See here for discussion of the 2014 story (which, when reading it, I first mistook for a discussion of 2018), and here for a discussion of 2018.

The writer of the new story suggests that “Next time the IMU offers up an embargo agreement, reporters should just refuse” which I’d also semi-jokingly suggested in a comment. Actually, given the history of this, it seems to me that journalists seriously should plan to do this next time, and that sympathetic and well-informed mathematicians should help them find out in advance who the winners are. This would allow journalists to contact experts and do proper reporting, with no reason to wait until the ICM to write their stories.

Update:

  • The ICM Youtube channel still doesn’t have plenary talks from the ICM posted. Peter Scholze’s talk on Period maps in p-adic geometry is available now on a different channel. It’s an excellent overview of, not the technology of perfectoid spaces, but some of the results achieved using them.
  • The reason there are relatively few comments here about the decision to have the next ICM in Russia is that I’ve deleted most of them as they come in. Many commenters don’t believe Russia is any unusual threat to liberal democracy (or, if it is, that US/European liberal democracy is anything worth saving). Most also disagree with the idea that such a threat should have any effect on what mathematicians do. I agree that in general it’s best to keep mathematics and the ICM out of politics. A question to think about though for those who know the history of the 1930s is that of whether there was some point during the rise of Fascism that one would stop thinking it was a good idea to have the ICM in a Fascist capital. We’re not yet far along the horrific path of the 1930s, but maybe that just means that all should be thinking about what can be done to keep the world from going down that path again.

    Another frequent comment is “but, by your logic, the US would not be a good place to hold the next ICM!”. I fear the answer to that is that yes, Paris would be a much better choice than the US at this point.

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32 Responses to Back

  1. Bill says:

    I agree with your St Petersburg vs Paris comment. It seems that the IMU decided some time ago to promote mathematics in countries without a strong mathematical tradition (or a collapsing one), instead of giving an excuse to people like you and me to go on vacation.

  2. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    I cannot comment on whether the ICM indeed decided to focus on the Quanta coverage, because I don’t know. My multiple emails to the organizers requesting explanations got either evasive responses or no response at all.

    But I don’t think there is anything for anyone to be gained by, for instance, making biographical information about the winners available to reporters only after the embargo has expired, as the ICM did. Also, I believe there is nothing to be gained by giving reporters an embargo that expires hours after the announcements have been made via webcast.

    But I suspect that this whole issue is symptomatic of an attitude occasionally seen within the math community. In my professional life as a reporter, I mostly interact with physicists and astronomers, but I also do cover math, and sometimes I do see a difference between the two worlds.

    I feel that some mathematicians see dealing with the press as being subjected to an indignity or an embarrassment; therefore, one should just pretend that the press does not exist (for instance not responding to requests), or perhaps only make exceptions for publications seen as allies. Fifty years ago, that mainly meant Scientific American; now it’s Quanta. Note: this is no criticism of either of those publications, for which I have utmost admiration; I have worked at the former and have several friends who work at the latter.

    So, some mathematicians seem to be under the impression that they get to choose who will cover them and their field. But one of the basic facts about a free press in a free world is that the press gets to choose what to cover, not the other way around. This misconception sometimes backfires in a spectacular way: think of Perelman, who thought that somehow you can make a major breakthrough such as solving the Poincaré conjecture and have only experts notice it and discuss it. But the more Perelman sought obscurity, the more morbidly curious people got about him, and the more attention he attracted toward himself — culminating in a New Yorker profile and two biographies.

    Fortunately, such extreme cases are rare, and in general, attitudes have been slowly changing. Many mathematicians are very open and helpfully reach out to journalists. And you see more and more mathematicians who are also excellent communicators, and even YouTube sensations (Kelsey Houston-Edwards and Grant Sanderson come to mind, among many others).

  3. Deane says:

    Peter, since I posted a public rant on Facebook about how the Times barely managed to run an article about the Fields medalists on the same day they were presented at the ICM, I figure I might as well repost it here:

    My annual (very long) rant: It appears that the IMU is just as bad at PR as the AMS. Until yesterday, they had not provided advance but embargoed notification of the Fields medalists to the right people at the New York Times. It turns out they sent it to the wrong person (someone who writes not about science but about Brazil and who doesn’t even work full-time for the Times). So the Times wasn’t going to be able to prepare an article to appear as soon as the announcement was made.

    What’s the big deal? Well, the Times is mostly in the business of publishing breaking news and, unless it makes a special effort, it’s not interested in stale news, which is what the news about the Fields Medalists would be in a few days. We *want* news stories like this to appear in major newspapers like the Times, which means they should be notified as early as possible.

    Luckily, a certain Times science writer told his brother, a mathematician, who in turn texted someone in the IMU leadership, who then finally arranged for the information to be sent to the Times science writer yesterday, which was just enough time to submit an article in time. This is obviously *NOT* the way to do PR for mathematics.

    I looked through the IMU web site and found only pages that discussed how to *submit* news to the IMU and absolutely none about any efforts to disseminate news to the media. That is totally lame. I am fairly certain that all of the other scientific professional societies make an active effort to issue press releases and place stories in the media. Neither the IMU nor the AMS have learned how to do this effectively. It’s still luck or pressure by a few people that gets math stories to be reported in the Times.

    I’ve been complaining about this since 2004, when Chern died. As far as I can tell, the situation has not improved much since then.

    (I do want to say that both John Ball and Ingrid Daubechies, when they were presidents of the IMU *did* notify the Times in advance. Ball even visited the Times newsroom, but that was the year Perelman was awarded the medal. Apparently, this practice has not been properly institutionalized at the IMU and was done this year at best carelessly.)

    I would be grateful, if those of you who are in the leadership of the AMS and IMU to keep pressuring these organizations to institutionalize and professionalize their efforts at media relations. Just having lots of math stories in Quanta is NOT enough. Its readership is too narrow.

  4. Deane says:

    Davide,

    The problem is that even the mathematicians who *want* coverage by the press have a poor understanding how the game works and, when things turn out badly, act like it’s the press who did something wrong, when in fact the press was just doing its job the way it always does.

    And the professional mathematical societies, such as the AMS and IMU, do not seem to have any capable press relations staff who know how the game works. So they passively put out press releases that they think look interesting and then wonder why nobody pays attention to them.

    When I first realized there was a problem in 2004, I asked Kenneth Chang, who, as you know, is the New York Times science writer who stayed up until 1:20am the night before in order to file the Fields Medal story on time, to compare his interactions with the American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, and the American Mathematical Society. He commented on the first two, but said that he had had no interaction with the AMS at all. I don’t think things have improved much since then. That’s why I wrote that rant I just reposted here.

  5. Oldster says:

    On the ICM conference in St. Petersburg, I can recall memories of working on a project at LANL in the 1970’s, and we were encouraged to share data with a fellow project in Novosibirsk. They were ahead of us in that research area anyway, although we also taught them some (preapproved) valuable things as well during a visit to Novosibirsk. And, we hosted another Soviet scientist at LANL for a few days. Such contacts were encouraged both for professional reasons, and for diplomatic reasons as valuable to detente when we still considered the Soviets “foes”. Thus to me the discussion now becomes, is holding a conference in St.Petersburg something that might serve a similar useful purpose? And as the Tsar’s summer residence and quite close to the rest of Europe, it must have some charm?

  6. anon says:

    I agree about political aspects of the ICM host selection, but purely as a vacation destination I find St. Petersburg in August much nicer than Paris in August.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Davide and Deane,
    Next time around, if the IMU provides the same embargo terms, perhaps publications could consider instead asking around and seeing if they could get the names elsewhere, do proper reporting, and release stories before the ICM…

  8. Davide Castelvecchi says:
  9. Peter Woit says:

    Davide,

    Thanks! I wasn’t aware of the 2014 history of this, reading about it at first I thought I was reading about 2018. Just added an update to the posting with links.

  10. Deane says:

    Peter,

    I think your comment is off the mark in two ways. First, reporting on prizes is not investigative reporting, and there’s no way the Times is going to rely on unofficial sources for who won. You’ll have to clarify what “proper reporting” is. I think you’re implicitly assuming that a reporter can tell whether one person is the right person to listen to and another is not. And there’s also how much time a science writer has to devote to a breaking news story, even with advance warning. All a writer wants are some good quotes, and frankly I thought Ken managed to do a great job there, getting a couple nice ones from Jordan Ellenberg, especially given the tight deadline he had. Ken had an advantage over Davide, because his brother has introduced him to many mathematicians and he now knows who’s likely to give a good quote and who’s not. There is also the nontrivial effort to write a few not-too-misleading sentences on why each person got the prize.

    The more important thing is that the math community needs math stories like the Fields Medals to be disseminated a lot more than the Times . I believe that the math community, compared to the other scientific communities, has suffered a lot from its incompetence in media and public relations. The other professional societies have media relations offices who actively try to pitch stories to the media. The AMS does not.

    My personal involvement with this began in 2004 when Chern died. I emailed my brother and told him that the Times *had* to write an obituary. My brother’s response was “because you said so, we’re doing it”. This shocked the hell out of me. It implied that if a mathematician brother of a Times science writer had not insisted on this, the Times would have probably never published one. Note that it is *not* the responsibility of the Times to keep track of deaths of scientists or other science news. It learns of them primarily from official communications from scientific professional societies and universities. So I asked my brother to compare the media relations activities of the American Chemistry Society, American Physical Society, and American Mathematical Society. He commented on the first two, and said, “I’ve never had any contact with the AMS at all”. Things have improved very little since then.

    That 4 obituaries of mathematicians (this for now is the easiest way to place math stories into the Times) appeared last year in the Times was due only to the pressure of a few individual mathematicians (luckily not just me and including at least one Fields medalist). The AMS never sent out anything, and didn’t even post the sad news on their own web site for at least a month afterwards (I stopped checking after that).

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Deane,

    I should make clear that I wasn’t intending in any way to criticize Kenneth Chang’s reporting. Considering the restrictions he was working under he did a fine job. The problem is the IMU, and now knowing this is not a new problem, but that they did exactly the same thing in 2014, I think it’s up to mathematicians to intervene and make sure this doesn’t happen again.

    The problem with the IMU behaving like this is that it is likely to cause journalists to simply not cover the story at all, exacerbating the problems you point out. The way things are going, in the future we’ll see excellent articles at Quanta, nothing in the rest of the press. I don’t see how that is good for mathematics.

    I’m quite serious that if the IMU doesn’t change its policy, mathematicians should consider just going around them to the press, with those who get reliable information about the identity of the winners contacting journalists to let them know. Journalists could then go and cover the story without the embargo restrictions.

    I realize this is not the way such things are normally reported, for very good reasons. In particular, unofficial reports of who the winners are could be wrong, but I think this would quickly become clear once journalists started calling up the supposed winners for comment.

  12. Bill says:

    By the way, since no one has mentioned this, Quanta Magazine actually published the article on Alessio Figalli about an hour before the live announcement on Youtube.

  13. August says:

    I’ve heard rumors that Jim Simons provided funding for 15K cheques that Fields medalists received this year, because the IMU ran out of money in their Fields Medal account.

  14. anon says:

    A couple of years ago IMU formed an ad-hoc committee to look (among other things) at how the major IMU awards are announced. One option that they considered was the ‘Nobel method’: announcing the winners in a press conference well before the ICM. I think that would be much better than the current system (the committee recommended keeping the current system).

    With every passing ICM awarding the Fields Medals seems to be turning more and more into something like Breakthrough Prize -type show. I’m starting to agree with critics of the Fields Medal (mathbabe for example) and I wish that IMU de-emphasised the medal a bit.

  15. anon says:

    August:

    apparently not Jim Simons. From the IMU webpage:
    “The medals and cash prizes are funded by a trust established by J.C.Fields at the University of Toronto, which has been supplemented periodically, but is still significantly underfunded. The discrepancy in 2018 was made up by the University of Toronto and the Fields Institute.”

  16. August says:

    Of course, that’s what they would say…

  17. Deane says:

    Quick comment about Quanta supposedly breaking the embargo. What actually happened is that an Italian newspaper broke the embargo and released the news about Figalli. The rule is that once one publication breaks it, then everybody else gets to do it, too. So Quanta published *only* their story on Figalli. It was pretty weird to see a story only about Figalli and not the others. I think the Times also published their article at that point, even though their story was about all 4 medalists.

  18. Deane says:

    Peter,

    I agree with you that the IMU (as well as the AMS) have to improve their practices and make it easier for *all* news organizations to publish math stories. So their embargo restrictions and ineptitude during the ICM are harmful.

    But I want to repeat that it is NOT the responsibility of the Times to compensate for this, for example, by guessing and calling up people. That’s kind of a ridiculous thing to expect a science writer to do.

    Since it’s all public by now, I can say more specifically what happened. Ken told me, only the day before the ICM opening, about not being able to get a response from the IMU. He did this, I think, mostly out of frustration and told me that I didn’t need to do anything. He would just try to write the story afterward the news became public. I still wanted to try. I first looked up who was in the IMU leadership to see who I would feel comfortable contacting. I first texted a member-at-large, who told me that I should contact Ken Ribet instead. I then texted Ribet, who was in Rio and who got the IMU to finally send the names to my brother by around noon. My brother then was able to do the research, finding among other things, your blog post, and talking to various people. It’s not always so easy to find people at the last minute like that, but he’s good at it. Still, he had to stay up until 1:30am writing the story. That’s way beyond the call of duty for a science writer.

    I later found out that Ribet himself was on the selection committee and therefore knew who the medalists were. I don’t know whether he told my brother directly or got someone else to do so.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Deane,
    Thanks for the further details about what happened. My take on this is that if it weren’t for extraordinary efforts by you and your brother, there would have been little or no coverage of this by the Times. Presumably many other publications didn’t bother, and that’s why if you look around, you find little coverage of this, at least in US media. And there would have been even less if it hadn’t been for the medal getting stolen…

    Faced with this situation, I’m not suggesting at all that it is up to reporters at the Times or elsewhere to try and figure out who the winners will be. What I’m suggesting is that, if the IMU doesn’t change its ways, it’s the responsibility of mathematicians to do something about this, specifically, to break confidentiality and get the news to reporters. In every case that I can remember, a few days before the ICM, I know of people who had figured out who the winners were. One would normally avoid leaking this to the press, so as not to interfere with the IMU’s plan for how to release the news, but maybe their plans should be interfered with.

  20. Zoviyer says:

    Even more annoying and disappointing that the IMU embargo on the press, and really hard to believe for this age, is the fact that they are not streaming the Plenary lectures. Even the lectures at the congress in Madrid all the way back to 20016 were streamed (and are still available at http://www.icm2006.org/video/). They seem happy to just put some very superficial posts in Instagram (not at odds at all with that platform!).

  21. martibal says:

    With the risk to be old fashioned, why is it so important that Fields medalists have their “story” on the first page of the Times ? I believe that some years ago the Fields Medals had very little echo outside the maths community. Was it is so bad ? In this blog we are complaining posts after posts against the “big show/circus” that high energy theoretical physics has become; if maths tries to resist to this tendency, that might be a good new.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    martibal,
    Not sure how important it is, but it seems a good opportunity, once every four years, to get some public attention for high-quality pure mathematics research. Unlike the Breakthrough Prize business, which tries to do this with Hollywood glitz and large checks, the Fields medal is little money, and awarded in the serious context of the ICM conference. I think Peter Scholze explicitly recognized the difference between the two things, by turning down the (junior) Breakthrough Prize award, and accepting the Fields Medal award.

    The kinds of stories put together by Quanta about the medalists and their work I think are good things for the public to see. It would be great if the IMU’s press people helped more of the press to create such stories, to get wider distribution. One can sensibly argue that the IMU should stick to math research, not engage with promoting it to the public. But, part of what they are trying to do is such promotion, and I don’t see an argument for why they should do it, but badly.

  23. Kenneth Chang says:

    The issue of the Quanta favoritism is the same as four years ago, but in every other respect, the resources and help from IMU were _much_ worse this time around.

    In 2014, IMU contacted me directly, an email from Ingrid Daubechies, the IMU president. I don’t know if she personally wrote it, but someone clearly made the effort to find reporters who were likely to be interested in writing about the Fields. This time, IMU sent an email to foreign@nytimes.com, a catchall mailbox for all sorts of news from all over the world. Not surprisingly, the email never made its way to me.

    In 2014, reporters who received the embargoed news release could interview the medalists. (The exception was Maryam Mirzakhani, for understandable health reasons.) This time, reporters were not to contact any of the medalists ahead of the announcement.

    In 2014, IMU provided the name of an expert who could talk about each medalist’s work. This time, there was no such help.

    In 2014, IMU provided a description of the medalist’s work. It was highly technical, but at least it was enough for me to at least ask Deane, “What the hell does this mean?” This time, there literally was nothing more than names and the Simons Foundation videos.

    I complained to the IMU/ICM people afterward and was told several of the medalists had said they did not wish to speak to the press. I don’t remember this ever happening before (Mirzakhani again being the exception). I don’t think this is coincidental. It appears that at least some of the medalists feel that the significant time they spent for the Quanta articles and Simons videos fulfilled their obligation to the public.

  24. Thomas says:

    If some of you are ready to put aside the “media coverage problem” for a few minutes, I think an interesting point could be trying to analyze how close some other young mathematicians were to win a Fields medal this year. More precisely, since guessing the future medalists is one of the favorite games of math addicts (see here for instance: https://poll.pollcode.com/44839318_result?v), I’ve noticed that, except for Peter Scholze, the three other medalists appeared kind of outsiders compared to the most proposed names found on the web. Indeed the names which came out were mainly: Fernando Codá Marques, Ciprian Manolescu, Simon Brendle, Geordie Williamson, or Maryna Viazovska. I agree that Alessio Figalli was sometimes proposed, but not as a big favorite. So I guess we have at least 2 big surprises this year: Caucher Birkar and Akshay Venkatesh.

    While I clearly think that’s part of the fun to have surprises with the Fields medal results, it would be cool to really discuss the weight of the contributions of the winners in comparison with the one of the “main losers”. So we could try to understand the final choice of the IMU for the Fields medalists, and in the same time sharing a bit the word outside the light of the 4 winners…

  25. Deane says:

    Let me clarify that although I’ve been complaining specifically about coverage of the Fields Medals, my overall larger concern is the coverage of math in general. I want to see more math stories in the New York Times, period. The Fields Medals are just the lowest hanging fruit. Obituaries of mathematicians seem to be the next lowest. I want more.

    Mathematicians like to complain about all the fuss about the Fields Medals. In an ideal world, I would, too. But we need whatever publicity we can get, and if, for the moment, it’s easy to get coverage of the Fields Medals, I don’t see why we should spurn it.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Thomas,

    I was thinking of writing about this in the posting, in the end didn’t mainly because of lack of time. An important point for the public to understand is that, while there are some winners like Scholze who would be chosen no matter what, typically many of the Fields Medal winners are very good mathematicians, but not that distinguishable from some other very good mathematicians who don’t get chosen, in this case simply because there were only three non-Peter Scholze slots available this year.

    I suspect a different committee would have made some different choices, recognizing a different group of very accomplished people. Part of the issue is that there is no sensible single well-ordering of mathematicians by who is “best”. Different people’s work is very different, and different people will have different judgments about what kind of work they like best. So, while admiring the accomplishments of this group, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that there is a significant number of others, unrecognized by the medal, but doing equally good work.

  27. Anni says:

    Reading the write-ups and talking with other mathematicians, I had the impression that: Birkar deserved it, Venkatesh is a good choice but so are the next ten people, Figalli (?).

    Another interesting issue is to compare sectional panels and invited speakers. In the section I know best one-third of the speakers are from the area of the committee chair and a number of speakers are collaborators and former students and postdocs of other committee members.

  28. Peter Woit says:

    Anni,

    I don’t want to encourage everyone to debate here their relative evaluations of the Fields medal winners/non-winners. To see who was on this and on previous Fields medal committees, see
    https://www.mathunion.org/imu-awards/fields-medal#on-page-3
    The members of this year’s committee that I know something about all seem to me likely to have taken the job seriously and done it well. One of them, Terry Tao, has some comments here:
    https://terrytao.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/birkar-figalli-scholze-venkatesh/

    That said, I still suspect a different group of well-known mathematicians with equally good judgment and taking the job equally seriously, quite likely would have come up with (besides Scholze) some different names.

  29. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    What Ken said sadly confirmed my hunch — that at least some of the winners did not wish to speak to the press.

  30. Peter Shor says:

    My impression from the 1998 ICM was that the press knew the names of the Fields Medal winners well before the public was supposed to and interviewed them (although the names did leak out somehow).

    I suppose they may have blamed the press for the leaks, and that this led to the current state of affairs.

  31. Koji Fujiwara says:

    I attended ICM as a speaker. I was thinking about this discussion during the closing ceremony. I understand the frustration of the journalists.

    One thing I noticed is that ICM is the International congress of mathematicians, it is not for/on/of Mathematics. It is an event where about 3000 mathematicians get together, about 200 invited talks are given, and 4 young rising stars are chosen and given medals. It is different from, say, Nobel prizes. For example, Nobel prizes of physics are chosen every year, but only the laureates are there and no other physicists.
    During the ICM, I could see lots of efforts are made to reach out to the mathematicians from countries and areas where there is a chance of improvement, say, Africa. IMU is doing good jobs toward mathematicians.

    That might explain how IMU have been to journalists. I am not justifying it, but looking for reasons that made the difference. I imagine that the headquarters of IMU possibly does not have a clear idea yet on what they want to do toward the general public.

  32. bixter zavala says:

    I find it rather appalling that, judging by the number of comments in this thread, the press issues related to Fields Medal seem to be of (much) greater importance than the decision to host ICM 2022 in Russia. The latter is far from morally neutral. It’s basically legitimizing a regime notorious for invading and occupying another country (the annexation of Crimea) as well as other infractions (political prisoners, MH-17 etc.). I would expect the mathematical community to use its conscience and at the very least voice its condemnation.

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