Why So Few Mathematicians? (Followup)

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Heidelberg Laureate Forum

In a previous post I discussed the question of why relatively few mathematical laureates came to the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. The question has continued to be much discussed at the meeting, and I have heard at least three more theories that I think may have some validity. I offer these theories in an attempt to be helpful about how to improve the meeting in the future.

In my first post I discussed two possibilities:

  • The timing was bad. (This was Ingrid Daubechies’ suggestion)
  • Mathematicians do not properly value the opportunities offered by a multidisciplinary conference. (This was my theory.)

In addition I have heard three more theories, which I will offer anonymously in case the people who discussed them with me would prefer not to have their names attached to them.

  • Conferences play a different and more important role in the culture of computer science. In particular, a conference talk is often equivalent to a published paper, which is not true in mathematics.
  • Many of the computer science laureates recently attended the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) meeting, so this is almost like a continuation of that meeting for them. They also might have had more peer pressure, or peer encouragement. (“Are you going to the Heidelberg meeting? Yes? So am I.”) Mathematicians had no equivalent pre-Forum forum.
  • In general, the computer science laureates form a more closely knit network. According to my count, 25 of the 28 Turing laureates attending this conference work or worked in Anglophone countries (U.S., Canada, U.K.) By contrast, Fields Medalists are a more international group, with strong contingents from France and Russia and other winners from all over the globe. This means that it is harder to get them together in one place, and peer encouragement might not work as well because they just don’t think of themselves as a peer group.

Please feel free to leave a comment if you have your own theory! I am sure that the organizers would like to understand why the mathematicians didn’t come and how to attract more of them in the future.

Also see John’s posting: Fields Medal Genealogy

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Dana Mackenzie is a freelance mathematics and science writer for diverse science magazine and author of several books. His most recent book is The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations, published in 2012 by Princeton University Press. He was the winner of the 2012 Communications Award presented by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics. Besides writing, the two interests that have stuck with him the longest are chess and folk dancing. More about Dana at his website.

1 comment

  1. Dana Mackenzie wrote (25 September 2013):
    > I have heard at least three more theories that I think may have some validity. […]
    > Please feel free to leave a comment if you have your own theory!

    My humble suggestion (on a reason why comparatively few mathematicians came to a conference attended by Dana Mackenzie):

    Many mathematicians tend to shy away from being pressed to propose full-fledged theories.
    (They might be more comfortable to merely offer hypotheses, conjectures, guesses.)

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