"St Petersburg is the place with a big history of the history of mathematics"

2 July, 11:22

Every four years, during the European Congress of Mathematics, the European Mathematical Society awards 10 EMS Prizes, the Felix Klein Prize and the Otto Neugebauer Prize. The Otto Neugebauer Prize is awarded “for highly original and influential work in the field of history of mathematics that enhances our understanding of either the development of mathematics or a particular mathematical subject in any period and in any geographical region”. At the 8th European Congress of Mathematics, the Otto Neugebauer Prize was awarded to Karine Chemla, a Senior Researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, CNRS). Karine's research interests include mathematics in Chinese, 19th century geometry in France, and the theory of the history of mathematics. We interviewed professor Chemla about the challenges that the history of mathematics faces and the ICM2022 that will take place in a city with great significance for mathematics history

— First, on behalf of the whole ICM LOC, please accept our warmest congratulations on this very important recognition of your accomplishments! Winners of such prestigious awards are also in a way ambassadors of their field. Are there some new goals that you want to pursue in this capacity? What do you see as important challenges for the future?

— I do consider myself as an ambassador of my field, and the challenges that I see for the future are twofold. First, to my eyes, an essential task that we have to set ourselves in the history of mathematics is to develop theoretical approaches to our sources. I think the history of mathematics has been perhaps all too often practiced in an ad hoc fashion — as a search for facts, whatever this might mean — and this is less interesting than seeking which theoretical questions should be addressed to improve our practice as historians. Questions of this kind would open new perspectives. Moreover, theoretical questions are interesting for the potential that they have to allow all historians of mathematics — no matter which topic and subfield they deal with — to join forces and cooperate to address them. For me, without theoretical dimensions, the history of mathematics is bound to remain limited. The second challenge for me is to fully inscribe the history and also the philosophy of mathematics within mathematics. There are not enough exchanges between the practitioners of these domains, and I am convinced that this represents a loss for all of us. 

— St Petersburg, the host city of 2022 ICM, is also the place where a lot of history of mathematics is concentrated, from Euler to Ladyzhenskaya. What should the ICM organizers and participants take from this rich history as an inspiration, and also as a lesson for today's mathematics?

— For me, St Petersburg is not only the place where a lot of history of mathematics concentrated, but also a lot of history of the history of mathematics. This was true more broadly in the former USSR. I think with pleasure of the cooperation between such stellar mathematicians like Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov and such excellent historians of mathematics as Adolf Pavlovich Youschkevitch, for instance, when they edited together the history of mathematics in the 19th century, which first appeared in Russian and only later in English. I truly hope that we could continue cooperation of this kind since they are precious opportunities for exchange.

— ICM 2022 will take place July 6-14, 2022, in a format that may be some mixture of live and online events, as the pandemic situation permits. While, of course, we hope that it will be 100% live, these plans may have to be adjusted as was the case with the ECM. Based on your experience here, what would be your advice to ICM organizers and participants to maximize the effect of a hybrid congress?

— Clearly, the questions and answers are the part of the meetings that are the most difficult to transpose in a hybrid format. Special attention should be given to them. Moreover, I strongly advise creating opportunities for participants to connect as if in a cocktail party, or in the corridor of a lecture hall. Chance encounters and discussions are the important moments that we lose in a hybrid format. Let me form wishes for the success of the St Petersburg ICM and for a 100% live meeting!