Sylvia’s Journal: International Congress of Mathematicians

Mathematics graduate student Jessalyn Bolkema (right) teaches a section of Math 101: College Algebra in a renovated classroom in Brace Laboratory in October 2014.

Editor’s note: This journal from Sylvia Wiegand, professor emerita, is adapted slightly from an email message she sent in August 2014 from Seoul, Korea, where she was attending the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM). The International Mathematics Union (IMU) holds an ICM every four years. This year the 27th Congress was the first time that the meeting was held in conjunction with an International Congress of Women Mathematicians (ICWM).

Dear Colleagues,

In case you are interested in the goings-on here in Seoul, I’m sending you this short report.

John and Glory Meakin and I have been enjoying Seoul where both the ICM and the ICWM have been taking place. I haven’t seen other department members, although I’m sharing lodging with Aihua Li, Montclair State University, and UNL Ph.D. 1994, my first Ph.D. student.

In particular, the opening ceremony on the morning of August 13 with the announcements of the Fields medalists and the Nevanlinna prize winner was part of an exciting upbeat day at the ICM. Ingrid Daubechies of Duke University presided over the prize ceremony, and the president of Korea spoke to the whole ICM gathering and emphasized the value of mathematics and mathematicians in the world. There was a LOT of applause about the selection of Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. Also Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University, whom I had met in Luminy many years ago, was chosen for a Fields medal. He was the first Fields winner of Indian descent. The other Fields winners were Artur Avila (first winner from Brazil) and Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick in England.

Apparently, the Korean press article on the opening ceremony emphasized the domination of the ceremony by “Three women”: Ingrid Daubechies, the first female president of the IMU (shown in cover photo); Park Geun-Hye, the first female president of Korea; and Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female Fields winner.

In the context of ICM2014, Ingrid was promoting an auction of beautiful mathematical art objects at The IMU is focusing its charitable efforts on providing assistance and encouragement to mathematicians in developing countries. The money collected through this auction will go to the first year of the program called “Adopt a Mathematics Graduate Student,” which will help young, talented students from developing countries to get access to an assistantship in another developing country. This auction is an initiative of the International Mathematical Union. (The online auction ended August 20.)

There were talks about the Fields medalists that afternoon, and, in the evening, the Meakins, Aihua and I went to a fancy celebration for the prize winners. We got to talk to Manjul and Maryam and Ingrid, and Aihua and I were in pictures with them.

Manjul is not only a great mathematician but he has been working on encouraging students to be math majors at Princeton. When our daughter, Andrea, graduated in 2003, there were only four or five math majors and only one of them was a woman, but Manjul said that now there are 60 female math majors.

Later that evening, there was an inspiring lecture by James Simons on his life, including how he solved famous problems in differential geometry, how he made all his money and why he is giving money to support mathematics and mathematicians.

Among many other wonderful ICM talks I heard were those by Janos Kollar (“The structure of algebraic varieties”), Manjul Bhargava on “Answers on a donut” [There is a very clear discussion of this talk at], and John Milnor – he won the Abel prize in 2011 and so he gave the Abel lecture on “Topology through Four Centuries.”

The ICWM has attendees from 52 countries. A panel discussion featured special issues for women in mathematics in different countries. One of the points made by the African women was that they have the additional burdens of poverty and the mistreatment of women in many African countries – women are discouraged from even attending school, even physically prevented from doing so and kidnapped if they try.

There were terrific lectures by well-known women mathematicians who generally took care to make clear and appealing talks; in particular Hee Oh, who is originally from Korea and is the first tenured woman at Yale University, gave a fantastic talk on “Circle packing.” She has helped to establish famous conjectures related to this subject, including one posed by Peter Sarnak.

Aihua’s poster on a math biology project done with undergraduates at Montclair State University was among the 20 “best posters” (out of 97) selected by the ICWM committee to receive a special certificate and prize.

In all, there were 5,193 participants from 122 countries at the ICM. I would guess there were at least 250 participants at the ICWM, and at least 50 countries represented.