(This is a revised version of a post published on March 12, under a much longer title. The revision takes into account the later dramatic developments in the case of retired King Juan Carlos I of Spain. If you missed János Kollár’s article about the curse that, according to two economists, afflicts Fields Medalists with an alarming loss of productivity, you probably have the time to do so now. It’s very entertaining and I guarantee it will take your mind off the pandemic and your lockdown for a few minutes at least.)
I had been preparing a blog post on the history of holding the International Congress under the patronage of figures of political authority. This patronage has been symbolized in recent times by inviting important politicians — often heads of state — to place the Fields Medals in the hands of the year’s Laureates. This has been the consistent practice since at least 2002, when I was in the Great Hall of the People to witness Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin handing the Fields Medals to Laurent Lafforgue and Vladimir Voevodsky. Like most of my colleagues I assumed this was a sign of the importance the host country attached to the ceremony, and to mathematics as a whole. By extension I concluded that an ICM at which the head of state was absent from the opening ceremony was on some level a symbolic failure for the host country’s organizers as well as for the international mathematical community.
On the other hand, as readers of this blog have probably guessed, I was motivated to write about the topic because I wonder whether this kind of high patronage is still a good idea in an age when practically no important political leader in the world enjoys the kind of respect that would do honor to the ideals that motivate the International Mathematical Union, and when so many leaders of major countries (and smaller countries as well) are authoritarians or crooks or both at once. It turns out that the practice of placing ICM under the sponsorship of the highest political spheres has not been consistent. The IMU has helpfully made the proceedings of all past congresses available, and the reading of the early pages of the earliest congresses is pleasurable as well as enlightening. How would I have learned otherwise that the 1920 Congress in Strasbourg cost 83,525 F, and that the most generous sponsor was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (10,000 F), followed closely by the 7,000 F provided by the Commissariat générale d’Alsace-Lorraine (restored to France only two years earlier) and the 5,000 F donation of Solvay, headquartered (still) in Brussels? I focused, however, on the congresses at which Fields Medals were awarded, starting with the Oslo congress in 1936, and specifically on whether the honor of presenting the Medals to the winners was entrusted to heads of state, to lesser politicians, to mathematicians, or to other representatives of civil society.
Reports on the opening ceremonies contain gaps, and I am not certain that I am reading them correctly, but I believe that the 1936 proceedings affirms that King Haakon VII of Norway was indeed in attendance, but that it was Elie Cartan who presented the first Fields Medals to Lars Ahlfors and to Norbert Wiener, representing Jesse Douglas who was too “fatigué” to attend. In Cambridge (Massachusetts) in 1950, it was the turn of Harald Bohr to hand the Medals to Laurent Schwartz and Atle Selberg, and in 1954 in Amsterdam Hermann Weyl transmitted the prize to Kunihiko Kodaira and Jean-Pierre Serre. Mathematicians — respectively Academician Mstislav Keldysh, Rolf Nevanlinna, Wladislaw Orlicz, Lars Ahlfors, and Beno Eckmann — again did the honors in Moscow in 1966, in Helsinki in 1978, in Warsaw in 1983, in Berkeley in 1986, and in Zürich in 1994. And it appears that Yuri I. Manin presented the Fields Medals in Berlin in 1998 — but I can’t figure it out from the report on the opening ceremonies, which include lengthy speeches by a series of high officials from various levels of the German government, and this is particularly embarrassing because I was actually in the audience (or maybe I wasn’t) and I don’t remember what happened.
The case of Moscow was a bit ambiguous. Georges de Rham introduced the laureates.
Unfortunately, A. Grothendieck, was unable to come. May I call Messrs. Atiyah, Cohen and Smale to come forward and receive these medals from the hands of Academician Keldysh.
I have already mentioned this but I repeat the information because (as I just learned) Академик Мстислав Келдыш is the name of a 6,240 ton Russian scientific research vessel which played a role in the filming of James Cameron’s Titanic. Not a bad fate for the name of a mathematician!
On all the other occasions the prizes were presented by politicians. Here is a rundown:
1958, Edinburgh: The prizes were presented by the Right Honorable Ian Johnson-Gilbert, Lord Provost of Edinburgh (not to be confused with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh).
1962, Stockholm: “The International Mathematical Union considers it a great honour that His Majesty the King has agreed to be present here and to give the Fields Medals to the winners of the Prizes” (ICM Proceedings, p. xl).
1970, Nice: The congress was placed under the highest possible patronage: “Monsieur Georges POMPIDOU, Président de la République Française, a accordé son haut patronage au Congrès. Monsieur Jacques CHABAN-DELMAS, Premier Ministre, a accordé son patronage au Congrès.”
However, neither the President nor the Prime Minister made the trip to Nice. Instead,
Monsieur Olivier GUICHARD, Ministre de l’Éducation nationale, remet les médailles Fields aux quatre lauréats, qu’il félicite.
The financial sponsorship for the congress was prominently displayed in the Nice proceedings, as it had been in the 1920 Strasbourg proceedings — in other words, I had to skip over the account of financial sponsorship before finding the report on the opening ceremony — and I thought readers might like to see that as well:
Le Congrès a bénéficié de l’aide d’un Comité de soutien pour la diffusion des travaux du Congrès, composé comme suit : Président : M. Georges DESBRIèRE, Vice-Président de Péchiney, Président de l’Association pour le Développement de l’Enseignement et des Recherches auprès des Facultés des Sciences de l’Université de Paris (A.D.E.R.P.). Membres : MM. BAUMGARTNER, Président de Rhône-Poulenc, CHASSAGNY, Prési-dent de l’Union syndicale des industries aéronautiques et spatiales, DELOUVRIER, Président de l’Électricité de France, DONTOT, Président de la Fédération nationale des industries électroniques, FERRY, Président de la Chambre syndicale de la sidérurgie, GALICHON, Président d’Air France, GLASSER, Président du Syndicat général de la Construction électrique, GRANDPIERRE, Président de l’Institut des hautes études scientifiques, HAAS-PICARD, Président de l’Union des Chambres syndicales de l’industrie du pétrole, HOTTINGUER, Président de l’Association professionnelle des Banques, HUVELIN, Président du Conseil National du Patronat Français, LESOURNE, Président de la S. E. M. A. (METRA International), d’ORNHJELM, Président de la Chambre syndicale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, Ambroise Roux, Président de la Compagnie générale d’Électricité
1974, Vancouver: H.M.S. Coxeter, President of the Congress,
announced that a telegram would be sent to His Excellency, the Right Honourable Jules Leger, C. C, C.M.M., Governor General of Canada, Patron of the Congress. The text of the telegram is as follows: We much appreciate your agreeing to serve as Patron of the first meeting in Vancouver of the International Congress of Mathematicians. We regret your inability to be present and we convey our warmest wishes for a complete recovery.
At the end of the opening ceremony, Professor Chandrasekharan, chairman of the Fields Medals Committee, made a speech that concluded:
May I offer them our warmest congratulations, and invite them to come forward to receive the medals from the hands of His Honour, the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.
1990, Kyoto: “The winners came forward and received their medals and prize checks from Mr. Kosuke Hori, Minister of Education, Science and Culture.”
The Medals were presented by mathematicians in 1994, and 1998, as I already explained. As you can see, the practice of receiving Fields Medals from high-ranking politicians is not so well established as some of us believed. And recent history has shown a curious correlation between getting close to the Fields Medal ceremony and being investigated for corruption. The prime example is that of former President Park Geun-Hye, shown above in Seoul in 2014, charged less than 3 years later with “abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking government secrets.” She will be in jail for a long long time, and although it was no fault of the four Fields Medalists, can they honestly say that it was an honor to accept the medals from an individual who enjoys such a dubious distinction?
The 2018 Fields Medal ceremony narrowly escaped being tainted by the participation of a no less corrupt politician:From France24, May 15, 2019:
Former Brazil president Michel Temer left prison on Wednesday less than a week after returning to a Sao Paulo penitentiary in relation to a wide-ranging corruption scandal that has engulfed several high profile South American politicians.
The 78-year-old left the Military Police Battalion in Sao Paulo at 1.30 pm (1630 GMT) in a heavily guarded convoy as he headed to his home in an upmarket neighborhood in the sprawling city’s west.
His release was ordered by all four judges on the Superior Court of Justice under the writ of habeas corpus, which demands that a prisoner who claims unlawful detention be brought before a court.
However, several conditions were attached, including a freezing of his assets and the seizure of his passport.…
He is suspected of having been at the head of a criminal organization that diverted up to 1.8 billion reais ($460 million) and has been operating for 40 years.
Temer participated enthusiastically in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and was still President during the ICM in Rio de Janeiro. In that capacity it was expected that he would hand out the Fields Medals at the opening ceremony. However (according to a colleague in Brazil with whom I spoke at the time) Temer found a diplomatic excuse to justify his absence at the ceremony, where his presence would certainly have been met with a loud and embarrassing protest — his approval rating had dropped to about 3%, a record low for any sitting President, anywhere in the world, even before his indictment.
It was India’s President, and not the better-known (and more powerful) Prime Minister, who brought the dignity of state to the opening ceremony of the ICM in Hyderabad in August 2010.
The officers of the IMU could have anticipated that the ordinary corruption of state, the ubiquitous kind to which most of us rarely pay attention, would accompany her presence, especially since she had already been under investigation:
From Wikipedia: Patil was a chairperson of the [Pratibha Mahila Sahakari] bank and also one of its directors, along with many of her relatives. She is one of 34 respondents in an ongoing case [as of 2007, according to Wikipedia] before the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court regarding alleged mismanagement of the bank and misappropriation of funds.… The Reserve Bank of India … revoked the licence of the bank in 2003 after it was found out that the bank had engaged in various irregularities, including illegally waiving interest on loans given to many of Patil’s family members.
At this point in my chronology I was hoping to be able to point to an exception in the person of former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. While few (probably none) of my Spanish friends are monarchists, they all recognize the role he played at a crucial moment in the consolidation of the still-fragile democracy that was installed after Franco’s death, and for the most part he was comfortable in his role of titular head of state in the system that reserves the actual power of government for the elected parliament. Moreover, unlike his successor and son, King Felipe VI, he has not intervened pointlessly in the Catalan independence crisis.
Overall, then, King Juan Carlos enjoyed broad respect in Spain and did bring a certain dignity to the 2006 ICM in Madrid, as did King Haakon VII in Oslo in 1936 (and even more in retrospect, for his refusal to recognize the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War). But a week before I revised this post the following story broke in El País:
This followed the revelation that “A public prosecutor in Switzerland has been investigating a multi-million-euro donation received by Corinna Larsen, a friend of former Spanish King Juan Carlos I, from a Swiss bank account linked to a Panamanian foundation.” The donation of $100 million to Corinna Larsen — also known as Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein — was apparently a kickback in connection with the construction of the Haramain high speed rail connection between Medina and Mecca, which was completed in 2018 by a consortium of 12 Spanish companies.
When I originally wrote this post I had not found allusions to this story in the English-language press. The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), the leading force in the current coalition government along with the parties pressing the case (Unidas Podemos etc.). was reluctant to investigate the economic activities of Juan Carlos is based on their reading of the Spanish constitution, which — as was demonstrated in a similar case two years ago — literally places the King above the law:
“las prerrogativas de inviolabilidad y no sujeción a responsabilidad del Rey, consagradas en el artículo 56.3 de la Constitución, son absolutas, abarcan a la totalidad del periodo en que se ejerce la Jefatura del Estado y tienen efectos jurídicos permanentes”
Ultimately King Felipe VI, son of Juan Carlos, renounced his inheritance and cut off his father’s stipend in a belated recognition that the individual standing in the middle of the above photo, and many other photos during his long reign, did not in retrospect lend dignity to the ceremony (and many other ceremonies) to the extent that the (figurative) crown on his head must have led the organizers to expect.
I am tempted to extend the disgraceful list back to the 2002 ICM in Beijing when I read questions like this:
Why is Xi Jinping afraid to jail Jiang Zemin even though there’s a lot of evidence of corruption against him and his alleged involvement in Beijing blasts to shake Xi’s authority? (Question answered on Quora.)
But I am aware that rivalries among factions of China’s ruling stratum take many unexpected forms and I know too well not to take this kind of comment at face value.
Mathematical platonists like to argue that our work is devoted to the discovery of truths that transcend any merely human laws. This sheds a novel light on the decision to invite heads of state who are above the law — whether they enjoy this status by virtue of a political system disposed in their favor, as was at least temporarily the case in 2018, 2014, 2010, and arguably in 2002, or by an exception carved into the law itself, as in the case of Spain’s former King — to lend their aura of inviolabilidad for a moment in order to enhance the solemnity of transfer of the Fields Medal. Advancing the 2022 Fields Medal ceremony to the week following Donald Trump’s successful evasion of his Constitutional responsibilities, with the help of the (very favorably disposed) US Senate, would have been a perfect illustration of this principle.
But we missed the opportunity and will therefore have to wait another two years for a more exemplary native of the imponderable innermost sanctum of politics, where words like “corruption,” “grace,” and “raw power” become practically synonymous, to dignify the St. Petersburg ICM with a moment of transcendence.
Colleagues who attended the São Paulo IMU General Assembly meeting, at which St. Petersburg was chosen over Paris as the venue for the 2022 ICM, informed me that the promise that President (for life?) Vladimir Putin himself would be on hand, to present the Fields Medals, was one of the arguments that clinched the decision. I have just provided a quasi-theological rationale for this thesis but I still find it hard to grasp, and I prefer the materialist explanation: namely, that Russia’s team had promised a much more generous budget than the French; the Chambre syndicale des Constructeurs d’Automobile, the Association professionnelle des Banques, and the rest of the list, not to mention Solvay and their 5000 F, carry much less weight in today’s globalized economy than they did 50 or 100 years ago.
It’s all about the Benjamins, in other words; or more precisely, about the николай николаевичи — the External Goods to which MWA devotes such obsessive attention. The money for the ICM has to come from somewhere. Who would seriously argue that private sources like the Union des Chambres syndicales de l’industrie du pétrole are really less tainted than the funds provided by the Russian government or the St. Petersburg administration? Besides, the many countries represented at the São Paulo meeting were perfectly aware that xenophobia had been a dominant theme in French elections for over 30 years — remember that at the same meeting they had voted to remove the name of Rolf Nevanlinna, who had presented the Fields Medals just 40 years earlier, from the computer science prize, because of his Nazi sympathies. And they knew all too well that France’s next presidential elections would be taking place before the 2022 ICM, with unpredictable results.
The candidate elected in 2022 will still be French President in 2026. But this may be irrelevant. The rumor is that New York will be bidding for the honors, with External Goods to be provided by the city’s robust financial services industry. I estimate that something like $30 million would be needed to cover the difference between 10 nights of hotel accommodations for 10000 participants in New York as compared to Paris, under normal circumstances; but maybe New York’s team knows how to transcend normal circumstances. Most intriguing, of course, is the prospect that the United States will have a very different kind of head of state by then.