Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Congratulations, Jon!

There is a long line to enter the conference center this morning. Only at the end, I realize that invited speakers (but of course!) can skip the line and stride in. The line is because of security checks. Everybody passes through a metal detector, and bags are checked. So much security for a math conference? (Later we understand why.)

We start with a string trio (guitar, violin and cello) playing live. The sound of the violin is butchered by the sound system. Then the VIPs come on stage. Chairing the award cerimony is His Majesty Juan Carlos I, King of Spain. This is not going to be like a STOC business meeting. The King is accompanied by a person in a white military uniform with lots of stripes on his shoulders. The King sits in the middle of a table on stage, flanked by congress organizers and Spanish politicians. (The minister of Research and the mayor of Madrid.) The guy with the white uniform takes a seat behind the King. Then, one by one, everybody gets up and gives a speech.

John Ball starts his speech by explaining how mathematicians talk about their work freely, without fear that their work will be stolen, and how work is appreciated solely based on its merits, not on the way it is promoted. This is how the vast majority of mathematicians work, he continues, and exceptions are rare, and noted. It might be a reference to some of the recent events around the proof of the Poincare conjecture.

The mayor of Madrid starts what seems like a canned speech that he always gives at scientific/ technological events. Towards the end, however, he talks quite eloquently about the virtues of mathematics, its ability to make sense of a complex world, its commitment to truth, its trascendence of religion, race, and so on. Finally, he says, it is not just mathematicians that have to make an effort to come closer to the everyman and to explain the practical applications of mathematics. It is everybody's civic duty to learn more about math and science. (He said it better.)

Griffiths starts by saying "One of the main activities of the IMU [the International Mathematical Union] in the last few years has been the selection of a new logo." Hilarity ensues in the audience. (He seemingly did not mean it as a joke.) A documentary on the new logo is played.

More and more people talk, and at long last we come to the award of the Fields Medals. As expected, Terry Tao and Grisha Perelman receive the award, plus two other mathematicians that work in areas that I am not familiar with.

Perelman, is announced, has declined the Fields Medal. Someone from the back claps.

The Nevanlinna prize goes to Jon Kleinberg. This is definitely the computer science award with the most distinguished record, and I want to congratulate the committee for, once more, making an excellent choice. Congratulations to Jon too, of course.


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