Interview with Andrei Okounkov and Stanislav Smirnov

27 July, 15:20

Original post by (in Russian)

In July 2022, the International Congress of Mathematicians - a world-class scientific event -will take place in Saint Petersburg. It is held every four years and comparable to the Olympic Games. The Fields Prize — an analog of the Nobel Prize for young mathematicians —is also awarded at the Congress.

Despite the pandemics, the most famous scientists will come to the congress: a participant ID, like a football one, allows a visa-free entry to Russia for its owner. The schedule of the nine days of the Congress comprises events for students and schoolchildren and open events.

The members of the ICM organizing committee and the Fields Prize winners Andrei Okounkov and Stanislav Smirnov talked to the Paper on how the forum would be carried out, what it means to St. Petersburg, and how the pandemics and the political situation in Russia influence the mathematical community.

How does the International Congress of Mathematicians usually go on? Why is it so significant to the world scientific community?

Stanislav Smirnov: The congress is not only about the awards giving ceremony and the presentations of the main latest achievements, but also a giant celebration of mathematics where each participant finds activities on demand, both personal and professional.

For example, the leading mathematicians of St. Petersburg have a chance to discuss with their colleagues what is happening at the forefront of mathematics all around the globe. Mathematics students for sure will be inspired by the Fields medalists' speeches and the reports of the International mathematical union. And the wide audience of math-lovers will enjoy the program of the public lectures, exhibitions, and other popular science events of the Congress.

Stanislav Smirnov
Stanislav Smirnov

You represented Russia at the previous Congress in Rio de Janeiro. What were your impressions of this event? What did this experience mean to you?

Andrei Okounkov: We were in Rio right after the ICM General Assembly in San Paulo had chosen St. Petersburg as the venue for the next Congress. Therefore, of course, we saw everything from a different angle of gaining experience, positive or otherwise.

We are extremely happy that our Brazilian colleagues managed to hold a successful Congress despite many obstacles (for instance, the venue where the opening was planned had burned down right before the ceremony, and they prepared another hall for it in two days).

It is a pity that the complications, epidemiological, financial, political, are only growing in the world. We suppose our Brazilian friends are quite happy that it is not their turn to organize the Congress this time. Our aim as the host of ICM 2022 is to make it a great celebration of mathematics despite any circumstances, and the example of our Brazilian colleagues is inspiring.

How was the application prepared? How difficult is it, in your opinion, to win the right to host ICM?

SS: In the world of mathematics, ICM is like the Olympic games. Having the right to organize it is our huge victory and the appreciation of the merits (probably it is better to say “past merits”) of the Russian mathematical school.

Apart from the pure mathematical ones, St. Petersburg had many other trump cards, such as the opportunity to astonish the visitors with the cultural program. It was also important that we promised that the congress badge (or MathID as it is called) would work in the same way as the FIFA FAN ID, in particular, giving the right to cross the Russian border without a visa.

We hope that the ICM is just the first of many scientific and cultural events for which the visas will be canceled.

 What is the stage of the preparation now? What has already been done, and what is planned to be done in the nearest future?

AO: We invite everybody to visit the congress website, which contains information and news about the preparation of the Congress.

We also strongly recommend the readers of Paper to contribute to the travel blog. This section aims to tell the guests of the Congress about St. Petersburg in more detail, share something personally important or surprising as if someone was your own guest.

 In one of the interviews, you said that ICM will include not only the congress but some events connected with mathematics during the whole year. Please, tell us more about what will be included in the program if it is settled.

We are planning that the year 2023 will be the year of mathematics in Russia. I want ICM not to become a bright flash of mathematical activity, only limited to nine days and one city. I would like the celebration to come to all universities and schools, to delight all lovers of mathematics, and spark the interest in the general public. We hope to get support from the whole country and its leadership for the realization of this project.

Andrei Okounkov
Andrei Okounkov

The ICM website says that the program of the Congress is prepared a year before. We know that the names of the key participants are kept secret until the very last moment, but probably you can name the main topics and directions of the presentations? When will the names be announced?

AO: The plenary and sectional speakers of the MCM are chosen by the program committee, and we have just received names from them. It is worth recalling that the right to speak at the Congress, especially with a plenary lecture, is assumed by all mathematicians as one of the highest assessments of their professional success.

We think that the reason to be proud of the Russian mathematical school is the fact that 4 out of 18 plenary speakers are its alumni. Two of them are currently working in Russia. These are Igor Krichever, who works at Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology and Higher School of Economics, and Alexander Kuznetsov who works at the Steklov Institute and the Higher School of Economics as well. Both of them studied at Moscow State University, just like Svetlana Jitomirskaya from the University of California at Irvine, who defended her thesis at Moscow State University under the supervision of Y. G. Sinai, and David Kazhdan from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the brightest star of the I. M. Gelfand“s school. We sincerely congratulate all of them on this deserved success and looking forward to meeting them in St. Petersburg. Of course, we plan to tell more about all the speakers from our country both on the Congress webpage and in the media.

SS: Let us also add that the winners of the Fields medals and other ICM awards also have the honor to make a plenary speech. Their names are kept secret until the opening of the Congress - July 6, 2022.

Some international events - like the SPIEF or the FIFA World Cup - affect the development of infrastructure and the image of St. Petersburg. Could Congress have a similar effect?

AO: Infrastructure in the sense of huge buildings is sometimes a doubtful legacy, as, for example, Moscow learned after its Olympics. The contribution to the educational and scientific infrastructure yet always leads to a positive effect, especially in our digital age. Of course, we expect such an effect from Congress.

We expect more talented young people to enter mathematical faculties at universities. We expect The Euler International Mathematical Institute in St.Petersburg to join the top echelon, ideally together with other world-class mathematical sites in our country, and become a center of attraction not only for Russian, but international mathematical talents.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the preparations? How much did it complicate this process?

SS: Complicated infinitely, for sure. The Congress is a huge event, the success of which is based on the personal participation of thousands of mathematicians from all over the globe. It is extremely difficult to count on success if you subtract all those who cannot come in person. However, as already mentioned, mathematics must continue to develop under any conditions, overcoming any difficulties. With the help of modern means of communication, virtual and hybrid scientific conferences can be organized. Of course, such virtual events cannot replace personal ones, but they win in some way, for example, because of their superior availability from all corners of the planet.

AO: The International Mathematical Union, having just considered this issue, came up with a decision: the Congress in St. Petersburg is not postponed. It will be either personal or hybrid but scheduled on July 6-14, 2022. And we hope that everyone will be able to come because personal communication is very important for the development of mathematics.

How do you think the pandemic affected the mathematical community overall?

SS: It is clearly a big blow. One can‘t avoid thinking of our colleagues who have died or been seriously affected by the virus. It is impossible not to think about how the economic difficulties affect education and science. We have already said how difficult it is to explain, understand and develop mathematics remotely, even via video link. But we must go on, since it is objectively easier for mathematicians than for many other scientists (try, for example, teaching a student to work in a laboratory remotely).

There is also a bright sight here. So, many high-quality scientific online seminars have appeared, bringing together mathematicians from all over the world. And I hope that high-quality online courses on basic mathematics will thus become available to everyone on the planet (or at least to all those who have an Internet connection). Mathematical literacy is now as important as ordinary literacy, and everyone should have an opportunity to gain it.

How strongly, from your point of view, does the political situation in Russia in general influences scientists and scientific initiatives? In particular, the mathematical community has repeatedly expressed concern about the case of the Moscow University graduate student Azat Miftakhov. Do mathematicians in Russia feel pressure from both the international community and their motherland legislation?

SS: We both are worried about all these issues because our aim as a host is to provide an open and productive platform for the mathematicians of the planet to discuss both their latest achievements and the professional problems they face. To recall, the International Mathematical Congress is being held by the International Mathematical Union. It is a worldwide organization that defines the congress structure, program, awards, et cetera. On the political situation around Congress, the IMU recently adopted a statement that we fully support. In particular, we support the hope expressed by the union and many of our colleagues that Azat Miftakhov will soon return to mathematics. We also support the request not to sacrifice mathematics in general and the activities of the IMU in particular to boycotts and other political acts.

AO: The common part of our answers is the belief that mathematics is eternal and universal, and that it does not stop - just like the humankind. Yes, now it is very difficult due to the pandemics, for the political reasons, but also because of the decline in the prestige of science in modern society, and for many other reasons. However, for mathematicians in many other countries, it is not easier - take, for example, Brazil, which we talked about at the beginning. What an amazing leap in mathematics it has made in recent decades! And it was hardly easier for other generations of Russian mathematicians to make those amazing discoveries that we are now proud of without going into details of the daily problems of that time.