Leveling the playing Fields

A group of firsts. From left to right, Martin Hairer, firs Fields medal from Austria, Manjul Bhargava, first medal for Canada, Park Geun-hye, first female President of South Korea, Maryam Mirzakhani, first female Fields medalist and first medalist from Iran, Ingrid Daubechies, first female president of the International Mathematical Union, and Artur Avila, first medalist from Brazil (and all of Latin America).

A group of firsts. From left to right, Martin Hairer, first Fields medal from Austria, Manjul Bhargava, first medal for Canada, Park Geun-hye, first female President of South Korea, Maryam Mirzakhani, first female Fields medalist and first medalist from Iran, Ingrid Daubechies, first female president of the International Mathematical Union, and Artur Avila, first medalist from Brazil (and all of Latin America). Photo courtesy of Alina Bucur. 

As has been widely disseminated in all sorts of media outlets this past week, the Fields Medals were announced at the International Congress of Mathematicians on August 13.  My fellow AMS blogger Brie Finegold has rounded up many of the blogs and articles on the topic in a recent blog post of her own, and I recommend this as a place to catch up with all the media buzz. A lot of (rightfully earned) attention has been given to the fact that Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman to earn this honor. A little less attention has been paid to the fact that all of the awardees are the first in their country of origin to receive the award. It is also the first time that anyone from Latin America has won.

In case you missed it, the winners of the Fields Medal this year were Artur Avila (from Brazil, has a joint position at IMPA in Brazil and at CNRS in Paris), Manjul Bhargava (from Canada, working at Princeton University), Martin Hairer (from Austria, working at the University of Warwick), and Maryam Mirzakhani (from Iran, working at Stanford). As I mentioned before, this was a year of firsts: each of these mathematicians is the first from their country to win a medal; this is the first year a woman wins the medal; this is the first time anyone from Latin America wins the medal. These are also the second and third medals given to people coming from developing countries (the first one was awarded in 2010 to Ngo Bao Chau from Vietnam).

I have heard many people say that “it was about time” that the Fields medal was awarded to a woman. But this maybe diminishes the value of what Mirzakhani accomplished. The fact is she was given this award because of her contributions to mathematics, not because she was a woman. What I like about this, and the other “firsts”, is that this to me is evidence that math is becoming more universal. It is no longer only the work of male European (or Caucasian) elites. Now it is clearer that anyone can be in the top of the field, regardless of gender or nationality. Maybe this is a little naive, since we know there are still many obstacles to overcome for women in mathematics and for mathematicians in developing countries, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Something that still baffles me, and which makes me think we could go even further with inclusion, is the 40 year age limit. If we truly want math to be for everyone, we should allow for non-traditional routes into mathematics, for “late bloomers”, for lifetime achievement, and for people who slow research down when they start a family (unfortunately, this mainly slows women down). Another thing, which Cathy O’Neil mentioned on her mathbabe blog, is that rewarding individual mathematicians is kind of obscuring the fact that many mathematicians work collaboratively. So if we’re giving awards for specific results, we should allow more than one person to get the medal (like with the Nobel prize) or if we’re looking at individual contributions, perhaps we need to think of lifetime achievement more than “what did you accomplish while you were young”.

In any case, I was happy to see such a diverse group, this group of firsts, and this gives me hope for the future of mathematics. How about you dear readers? Are you excited about the winners? Please share any thoughts in the comment section below.

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