Mathematical isolation

The International Mathematical Union announced the recipients of its 2014 prizes at the opening of the International Congress of Mathematicians – the biggest of its kind in the world – in Seoul on August 13. The oldest and most coveted of the prizes, the Fields Medal – awarded for outstanding discoveries in mathematics – went to four scientists aged 40 or under: Artur Avila from Brazil for his contribution to dynamical systems theory; Manjul Bhargava, a Canadian-American of Indian origin, for the new methods he has developed in the geometry of numbers; Austria’s Martin Hairer for his contributions to the theory of stochastic partial differential equations; and Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian working in the United States, for her work in the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. The medal, which is as important as the Nobel Prize, was the focus of more attention this year because Mirzakhani was the first woman it has ever been bestowed upon.

Greece is an old and active member of the IMU and it is in fact rumored that Demetrios Christodoulou, an award-winning Greek-American mathematician and physicist, was among those being considered for a Fields Medal this year.

However, despite Greece’s contribution to mathematics from antiquity to the present day, its presence at the IMU is under threat because the Academy of Athens, which represents the country in the International Mathematical Union, has not paid its membership fees since 2012, citing financial constraints. This means that Greece could be struck off the membership list at any time, something that would be, at best, a major humiliation.

How big is the debt? The fee for 2012 and 2013 comes to 3,373 Swiss francs, or 2,790 euros more or less. For under 3,000 euros – surely not a huge amount – Greece, a country that has produced great mathematicians all over the world, is at risk of finding itself kicked out of the world’s most important mathematical association.

We can only ask ourselves: Did the Academy of Athens’s senate unanimously decide to stop paying at the risk of exclusion? Was an alternative source of funding sought once it was ascertained that the annual budget could not be stretched to another thousand euros or so? Was Athanassios Fokas briefed about this dire state of affairs, given that he is hailed as one of the country’s greatest mathematicians in history, currently teaching at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge?

Economic constraints are no excuse for Greece becoming internationally isolated from such events and organizations, especially when the money involved is so little. Even the poorest households strive to scrape together what they need to send their children to university. Can’t the country do the same?