Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part I
The first meeting. Venue – Beijing, August 2002. We met up with Vladimir Voevodsky and Laurent Lafforgue at the International Congress of Mathematicians – the pre-eminent event in the world of mathematics. The Congress is nothing less than a hybrid between the Olympics and the Nobel Prizes. What it has in common with the former is its quadrennial occurrence, and to present at it is as much an honour as it is for a sportsman to win a medal at the Olympics. And like the Nobel it confers an award, the Fields Medal, which is possibly the greatest prize in mathematics.
We may never learn what occasioned Alfred Nobel so much dislike: mathematics as a discipline, or mathematicians as a community. One thing is for sure, though: he did not declare any share of the prize to mathematicians that might enhance either their prestige or their financial status. Nobel laureates quickly become stars on TV and radio, their bank accounts bulging to the tune of several trailing zeroes; for the rest of their lives, they enjoy the fruit of their labour. Fields medallists, though, are known chiefly to their colleagues, and the prize money itself is so modest that they scarcely have enough to purchase a middling automobile. In addition, there is a severe restriction: the prize can be won only by a mathematician not older than 40 years of age.
But none of this diminishes any of the scientific work that is nominated for it. And so the professionals in their thousands descend upon the Congress from all parts of the world, reminiscent of warriors who congregated to measure themselves against each other in ancient times. In 2002, the Congress held in Beijing was unusual in two ways. It was the first time since the inception of the Fields Medal in 1932 that it was being held in China. Secondly, it was the first time that the prize was being awarded only to two mathematicians, not four as was the usual practice. [My note: this is not true. The first five ICMs had only two prizewinners each, as did the one in 1974.] The quality of achievement of these two men was considered so high that it had been impossible to find another pair equally eminent. In Beijing, the event had assumed a national importance. I suppose this was no different from the way we conducted the International Festival of Youth in Moscow in 1957.
On all TV and radio stations, they transmitted live broadcasts of the events unfolding at the mathematical institute where the Congress was hosted. All manner of strangers, in the markets, on the streets, in the shops, came up and welcomed us when they noticed the badge we wore with the ICM logo. And the prizes themselves were awarded in the great hall of the Chinese parliament by the President, Jiang Zemin. At the centre of all the attention, of course, were two young light-haired Europeans, who looked so alike to the President that he mixed up the medals, and didn’t at once realise with whom he should standing to be photographed.
[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]