Mathematical Laureates and Public Engagement

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The first session of this year’s HLF, following the opening ceremony, was a series of interviews with laureates, conducted by representatives of the organisations that awarded the prizes. This included an illuminating chat between Carlos Kenig, the president of the International Mathematical Union, and some of the 2018 Fields Medalists, including Caucher Birkar, Alessio Figalli and Peter Scholze, as well as 2018 Nevanlinna Prize winner Constantinos Daskalakis.

It was interesting to find out about each of the laureate’s experiences winning the prize, and in response to a question about how winning the award has impacted on their lives, a common thread was their increasing work in the area of popularisation of mathematics – public engagement and outreach.

Caucher Birkar described his experience of the Fields medal opening doors for him – as well as the chance to meet lots more interesting people, it also afforded an opportunity to get involved in wider society. He’s spent the last two years trying to popularise mathematics – ‘to make it less scary to the general public’ – through social media and YouTube, and through delivering public talks and summer schools.

This seems to be a common experience – many high-profile award laureates are offered opportunities to give talks about their work in the wake of a big prize, and it’s a chance for them to share what they’re doing with the wider mathematical community, and the general public. The International Congress of Mathematics, where the Fields medal and Nevanlinna prize (now the Abacus medal) are awarded, includes a range of public lectures and outreach activities.

Caucher Birkar’s lecture at the 7th HLF in 2019.

Many public talks and interviews with laureates are also available to watch online – for example, Caucher Birkar has spoken for the Royal Society, done interviews with Quanta Magazine and the Millenium Maths Project, and many other videos of his talks are on YouTube. Events like the HLF are also opportunities for laureates to give public talks, and it allows people to see mathematicians at the very top of their field talking about their work. 

So what difference does the ‘celebrity status’ which accompanies a prize like the Fields medal make? Watching a speaker with an unarguable level of knowledge and expertise can be enlightening, and a chance for younger mathematicians and those interested in the field to be inspired and see what it’s possible to achieve. As well as the volume of invitations laureates get to give talks and make public appearances, an award can give you more influence – Birkar spoke of his attempts to establish a scholarship scheme for Kurdish mathematicians, which wouldn’t have been a possibility for someone not so highly regarded.

Plenty of other Fields medalists have a track record in outreach or public engagement – 2010 Fields medalist Cedric Villani has become somewhat of a celebrity. He has given many public lectures including several TED and TEDx talks, as well as appearing in popular videos on the Numberphile YouTube channel. His 2015 book Birth of a Theorem, describing the process of research mathematics, was a bestseller in his native France.

2014 Fields Medalist Manjul Bhargava was appointed in 2018 as the inaugural Distinguished Chair for the Public Dissemination of Mathematics at MoMath (the USA’s National Museum of Mathematics, in New York) – the first visiting professorship in the US dedicated exclusively to raising awareness of mathematics, and inspired by the existence of similar professorships in the UK. There, he’s given talks and courses to museum attendees, and helped design hands-on maths exhibits for their collection.

Does this mean all the HLF laureates should strive to become the public face of mathematics? Not necessarily. In an interview about his appointment as Public Dissemination chair, Bhargava says “I’ve always enjoyed talking to the public about mathematics,” and it may be that for some, this is a passion they can now indulge. But while many research mathematicians have experience talking about their work to other mathematicians working in their area or related areas, the skills involved in talking to the public can be very different.

Mathematics, by its nature, builds on and connects to other parts of mathematics. This can mean that in order to explain a concept from research-level maths, you sometimes need to build a lot of other concepts and machinery first, which many members of the public wouldn’t already be familiar with. This makes talking about research a real challenge – it’s not impossible, but much of public engagement with maths deals with lower-level topics, accessible to a general audience, or has a focus on real-world applications. This will be discussed at length in tomorrow’s panel discussion beginning at 4:00 pm CEST.

It’s also quite difficult to juggle outreach with continuing to work in research – in the interview, all the laureates who have been giving public talks acknowledge that time is limited, and you need to be wise with it. Mathematicians in the public eye like Hannah Fry – who holds a research position while also giving public talks, presenting TV and online content and writing popular maths books – have a lot of plates to keep spinning. The laureates agree that both are important, but you can’t commit to too many things and expect to be able to keep up with your research.

When the Fields medal was announced, Peter Scholze was just in the middle of a big research programme, which meant he’s not had much time to spare and has had to turn down a lot of the opportunities he’s been offered to give public talks – and there’s no reason he should sacrifice his work in order to do this. While it’s very possible, and a good thing, for top-level researchers to devote their time and skills to popularising mathematics, it’s also important that the research itself keeps happening – so that Fields medalists can keep pushing the boundaries of mathematics and improving our understanding of the universe.

Katie Steckles

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is a mathematician based in Manchester, who gives talks and workshops on different areas of maths. She finished her PhD in 2011, and since then has talked about maths in schools, at science festivals, on BBC radio, at music festivals, as part of theatre shows and on the internet. Katie writes blog posts and editorials for The Aperiodical, a semi-regular maths news site.

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