Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part II
The second meeting
Venue – A Moscow Kitchen. October 2002.
Vladimir Voevodsky came to the interview not alone, announcing from the entrance that his prize should be shared with three people, of whom he couldn’t bring along the first and the third, but he had managed to snare the second.
VV: Let me introduce you: this is Yuri Shabat, Professor at the Moscow State University. If I make a mistake in something, he’ll correct me.
OO: And who is the first person?
VV: Well, actually even before him were the dinosaurs. When I was really little, I loved dinosaurs. And then books on chemistry began to fall into my hands; my mum brought them, she was a chemist. From theory I soon moved onto practice, and there were explosions in the bathroom, after which there were experiments with electricity, and then, going backwards, theoretical physics, which my father, a physicist, introduced me to. When I was seriously ill with pneumonia, my father’s friend Oleg Sheremetyev brought me a Rubik’s cube to distract me. There were no published solutions to the puzzle at the time, and I killed two days to crack it on my own. And then Oleg and I went on to solve more complicated mathematical puzzles. Oleg used to spend much time those days teaching mathematics to kids at the Pioneers Palace. He was the first to show me that mathematics could be interesting of itself, in a very pure sense.
OO: Volodya, you finished high school but you do not have a degree. Does that mean, by Russian standards, that you are under-educated?
VV: I was rusticated from Moscow University for academic failure. I was already interested in algebraic geometry, but attending classes seemed like such a waste of time. I took a break from academics, and began an apprenticeship at a vocational school where kids were being taught programming. One day, I found some scrap paper on a table with formulae scribbled over it – and immediately realised that there was someone around who thought just like me. I was overjoyed and went in search of the owner of that paper. And that’s how I found Yura Shabat. He didn’t deny it. “Yes,” he said, “These are my papers. So what?” Well, I said, I have also been thinking along those lines. It was very important to me that I had found him.
YS: Yes, and after that, we worked for a long time together.
OO: So what attracted you to algebraic geometry?
VV: Purely subjective factors, I have to say. At the time, algebraic geometry was being done by interesting people, such as Shafarevich.
OO: And how did the move to America come about?
VV: Even after returning to academics, I still wouldn’t attend classes. In 1989, then, obviously, everything collapsed, and such formalities as degrees seemed quite useless. After Yura Shabat, I began to work with Misha Kapranov, and we published several papers. Then he went off to graduate school in the States, talked about our work, and thanks to him, I became a graduate student at Harvard.
OO: Your relationship with America, it appears, was not entirely idyllic?
VV: To be honest, America impressed me at once. On the very first day I arrived at Harvard, I was handed keys to an apartment, to an office, and a cheque for a thousand dollars. And I was a mere graduate student! At the time, there were many Russian mathematicians on the faculty. Dmitri Kazhdan was Dean. I need to share my prize with him as well. He and his colleagues supported me at a period when I could no longer live in Russia, and I was still new to America. I remember, during my first Christmas in Boston, I got drunk and wandered into a black ghetto. There I was robbed, beaten and hurled into the snow. This, of course, added to my discomfort; but I was deeply anguished, missing Moscow, and thinking how much I hated their Christmas. I wanted my New Year [My note: Russians celebrate New Year rather than Christmas], with a fir tree and my mum and presents. I went to Professor Joseph Bernstein, and said to him – I can’t stay here. He answered me in one sentence, “Well, if it’s so bad for you here, then go home.” I am eternally grateful to him for this. I went to Moscow for four months, and he covered up for me, saved my fellowship and stipend. Then I returned and lived for a few months in my office, writing up my dissertation quickly. When I went in the mornings to brush my teeth in my sweat-pants, students would be coming into the department and looking askance at me. But Dean Kazhdan gave me the possibility to complete my work in peace. So I got my doctorate, but without any college degree either from Russia or America.
OO: Was such an option open to you in Russia?
VV: Formally, it wasn’t prohibited, but it is clear that the entire procedure would have been much harder, and taken much longer. There have been earlier precedents, but in my opinion, perhaps more often in the pre-war days than today.
OO: Setting aside material comforts, what distinguishes a scientist’s life in Russia from that in America?
VV: Everything. It’s a different professional environment. In my own field, there are ten times as many people working in America. There is the corresponding level of competition. In Russia there is no direct relationship between a scientist’s academic success and financial situation. If a person is comes up with an extraordinary idea, then everybody says, ‘Praise God, we are happy,’ but his salary is not going to go up from tomorrow. In America, it is likely to increase; but if you prove something interesting with your colleagues, at once the question arises – who did what first? Because the prizes have to be divided. In Russia, when people think up the same idea simultaneously, it is rather nice. There’s a professional collegiality. But in the US, this would decrease the material consequences of a scientific achievement. Although I have to say that in mathematics this is not as strongly felt as in biology, chemistry or medicine.
OO: Besides science, you have always had a wide range of interests. You have travelled the world, kept up your interest in history, followed politics. You live in the US, your wife is Egyptian, and you have friends of various religious persuasions. You have, perhaps, a nuanced view of events in the world.
VV: Undoubtedly, I have a cosmopolitan regard of current events as I do constantly listen to views of people from different sides of the barricades. And it is not difficult for me to note that not all of them are true. No less, it is evident nuclear weapons that used to be so difficult to obtain, will become quite common. And I don’t see any reasons that can stop those people who want to use them. Clearly, nuclear war awaits us in the coming decades. On the other hand, in American scientific journals, such as Science, I regularly read that its consequences are not as scary as we might imagine.
OO: Well, thanks for the consoling thought… And what will happen to mathematics in these projections?
VV: Nothing good is going to happen to mathematics, even if there’s no nuclear war in the near future. Mathematics has developed over a long time with lots of intensive research. But today’s mathematics requires immensely larger resources: of people, time, and money. You understand, in modern science we have a situation where the amount of time a person has to spend just to bring himself up to speed with an open problem is unacceptably long. I cannot explain – even to a very good student in his final year at University – the details of my work! Today, new people find it harder and harder to engage in the scientific process. I think it’s a bad sign. If mathematics does not turn to the practical needs of mankind, in fifty years it will no longer be in any form we can recognise.
YS: Well, here I’d like to object. I am well acquainted with the history of mathematics, and can say that apocalyptic predictions of its demise are not new. But mathematics, paradoxically, has always evolved in an irrational fashion. Its history is very similar to that of poetry. In some periods there is a crisis, and then there’s a period of barely discernible development in new directions, and then there’s a powerful creative explosion. Forecasting this systematically is impossible. I think than in fifty years mathematics will still exist as a fully-fledged science.
VV: Shall we bet on it? Let’s meet in thirty years, say, and examine the situation. We won’t wait fifty years – who knows if we’ll live that long?
Vladimir and Yuri made the wager, I excused myself. Time passed.
[To be continued.]
[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.]