Mathematical prizes and the “oppressive hierarchy”

Abel medal

My intention was to devote my next post to exploring this paragraph from Piper Harron’s blog:

Please continue to share your experiences with me, so that I may learn.  If you are in a position of power (academically, racially, gender-wise, etc), please use these conversations as inspiration to find ways to dismantle the oppressive hierarchies.  If you are not in a position of power, take care of yourself.

It was to have been a continuation of the earlier post on hierarchy, and it will be written, because Harron’s repeated use of the word “oppressive,” and occasional use of the word “hierarchy,” to describe the world of mathematics as she experiences it, deserves a thorough discussion.  However, as often happens, events have overtaken my plans, in this case the announcement that this year’s Abel Prize is going to Andrew Wiles, the thesis advisor of Harron’s own thesis advisor, and therefore Harron’s mathematical grandparent.

The awarding of prizes is the clearest mark of the hierarchical structure of the mathematical community.  MWA argues that this has more to do with the dominant values and priorities of mathematical research than with the exercise of personal power, but this is obviously open to discussion.  As the world’s most famous number theorist, Wiles inevitably plays a central role in maintaining and developing the priorities that will guide future research in the field, but he is the least oppressive individual imaginable.  I have never heard anyone claim that he has used his prestige to increase his personal power, although he was certainly in a position to do so.  The New Scientist quotes Wiles on his reluctant acceptance of his celebrity status:

In the years since [the announcement of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem] I have encountered so many people who told me they have entered mathematics because of the publicity surrounding that, and the idea that you could spend your life on these exciting problems, that I’ve realised how valuable it actually it is.

I have no reason to hide that my own work has been deeply influenced by everything Wiles has done — not only his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (and what the Abel Prize committee called the Taniyama-Shimura-Weil Conjecture, thus temporarily settling one particularly irritating controversy).  Through my participation in organizing mathematical activities, as well as through my individual research, I have contributed in a modest way to promoting Wiles’s priorities and values, and thus to maintaining their place in the hierarchical structure of contemporary number theory.  Whether or not this is oppressive will be the topic of a future post.

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One thought on “Mathematical prizes and the “oppressive hierarchy”

  1. Pingback: Il Premio Abel 2016 A Sir Andrew Wiles | Backup Del Post

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