I love math and I hate the Fields Medal
I’ve loved math since I can remember. When I was 5 I played with spirographs and learned about periodicity, which made me understand prime numbers as colorful patterns on a page. I always thought 5-fold symmetry was the most beautiful.
Then I got to college at UC Berkeley and in my second semester was privileged to learn algebra (and later, Galois Theory!) from Ken Ribet, who became my very good friend. He brought me to have dinner with all sorts of amazing mathematicians, like Serge Lang and J.P. Serre and Barry Mazur and John Tate and of course his Berkeley colleagues Hendrik Lenstra and Robert Coleman and many others. Many of the main characters behind the story of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem were people I had met at dinner parties at Ken’s house, including of course Ken himself. Math was discussed in between slices of Cheese Board Pizza and fresh salad mixes from the Berkeley Bowl.
How lucky was I?!?
And I knew it, at least partially. Really the best thing about these generous and wonderful people was how joyful they were about the serious business of doing math. It was a pleasure to them, and it made them smile and even appear wistful if I’d mention my difficulties with tensor products, say.
They were incredibly inviting to me, and honestly I was spoiled. I had been invited into this society because I loved math and because I was devoting myself to it, and that was enough for them. Math is, after all, not an individual act, it is a community effort, and progress is to be celebrated and adored. And it wasn’t just any community, it was a really really nice group of guys who loved what they did for a living and wanted other cool and smart people to join.
I mention all this because I want to clarify how fucking cool it can be to be a mathematician, and what kind of group involvement and effort it can feel like, even though many of the final touches on the proofs are made inside closed offices. Being part of such a community, where math is so revered and celebrated, it is its own reward to be able to prove a theorem and tell your friends about it.
Hey, guess what? This is true too! We always suspected it but now we can use it! How cool is that?
Now that I’ve explained how much I love math (and I still love math very much), let me explain why I hate the Fields Medal. Namely, because that group effort is utterly lost and is replaced with a synthetic and false myth of the individual genius working in isolation.
Here’s the thing, and I can say this now pretty confidently, journalism has rules about writing stories that don’t really work for math. When journalists are told to “put a face on the story,” they end up with all face and no story.
How else is a journalist going to write about progress in some esoteric field? The mathematics itself is naturally not within arms reach: mathematics is by nature deep and uses multiple layers of metaphor and notation which even trained mathematicians grapple with, never mind a new result on the very far edge of what is known. So it makes sense that the story becomes about the mathematician himself or herself.
It’s not just journalists, though. Certain mathematicians do their best to represent research mathematics, and sometimes it’s awesome, sometimes it kind of works, and sometimes it ends up being laughably or even embarrassingly simplistic. That’s the thing about math, it’s deep. It’s hard to boil down to a nut graf.
So here’s the thing, the Fields Medal is easy to understand (“it’s the Nobel Prize for math!”) but it’s incredibly and dangerously misleading. It gives the impression that we have these superstars who “have it” and then we have a bunch of wandering nerds who “don’t really have it.” That stereotype is a bad advertisement for mathematics and for mathematicians, who are actually much more generous and community-spirited than that.
Plus, now that I’m in full rant mode, can I just mention that the 40-year-old age limit for the award is just terrible and obviously works against certain people, especially women or men who take parenting seriously. I am not even going to explain that because it’s so freaking clear, and as a 42-year-old woman myself, may I say I’m just getting started. And yes, the fact that a woman has won the Fields Medal is a good things, but it’s a silver lining on an otherwise big old rain cloud which I do my best to personally blow away.
And, lest I seem somehow mean to the Fields Medal winners, of course they are great mathematicians! Yes, yes they are! They’re all great, and there are many great mathematicians who never get awards, and doing great math and making progress is its own reward, and those mathematicians who do great work tend to be the ones who already have lots of resources and don’t need more, but I’m not saying they shouldn’t be celebrated, because they’re awesome, no question about it.
Here’s what I’d like to see: serious outward-facing science journalism centered around, or at least instructive towards, the incredible collaborative effort that is modern mathematics.