Secret Life

Article

Geombinatorics Quarterly

Truth, Like Water, Finds Its Way Out – By Alexander Soifer

Geombinatorics XXVIII(2), October 2018, 106–111.

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, USA

Geombinatorics XXVII(1), July 2017, 20–25. 

The Secretive Life of the International Mathematics Union
Alexander Soifer
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, USA

 

There is a popular misconception that one who does nothing, does nothing wrong.

 

What is in common between the Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI, and IMU, the International Mathematics Union? Both are three-letter abbreviations, you would observe. True, but this is not the only commonality. To my disbelief, I discovered that secretiveness is their shared mode of conduct. I accept FBI secretiveness as a necessity of its investigative work. Why does the IMU Executive Committee dress their decisions and even the location and dates of their meetings in the shroud of secrecy? To the inquiry into the dates and the location of the April–2017 IMU Executive Committee meeting, IMU President Shigefumi Mori replied on March 16, 2017, as follows:
Thank you for your interest in International Mathematical Union (IMU).

The Executive Committee discusses a variety of topics including confidential ones and also ones that need longer considerations. Thus we do not make the date and venue public as a practical measure.

Thank you very much for your understanding in advance.

Best regards,

Shigefumi

 

Are you satisfied with the president’s justification for secretiveness of our mathematical (!) union? I, for one, fail to see logic in his text. While the selection of winners of Fields Medals, Rolf Nevanlinna Prizes, and the like could be decided in a closed session, I expect the rest of the IMU business to be done in transparency and openness, which Mikhail Gorbachev famously called “glasnost.” How can the need of some closed personnel sessions imply hiding the place and dates of the IMU Executive Committee meetings?

As a reader of Geombinatorics, you are familiar with the July 30, 2016, letter I sent to IMU President Shigefumi Mori and his Executive Committee on behalf of the Executive Committee of the World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions [1], in which I urged the name change of the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize and medal. On January 21, 2017, I sent another letter warning IMU again that the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize stains our profession. In case the money were the problem, I offered to pay $15,000 personally, thus replacing Finland, which has been providing this sum for the prize:

 

Executive Committee of the International Mathematics Union (IMU) c/o IMU President Distinguished Professor Shigefumi Mori

 

Dear Members of the IMU Executive Committee,

Today I woke up compelled to write to you my personal letter. Right after my plea to change the name on the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize and Medal, addressed to the General Assembly of ICMI, I was thanked by many members present. One response is still imprinted in my memory. Gilah C. Leder told me, “Thank you, I was on the Executive Committee of ICMI, and I did not know.” Imagine, a most distinguished scholar, a Laureate of the highest Felix Klein Medal did not know about Prof. Nevanlinna’s public support for Hitler and Nevanlinna’s leadership in the recruitment of criminal SS troops! This makes me think that the 1981 IMU Executive Committee was likewise unaware of Nevanlinna’s dark past, or it would not have established a prize in the name that makes me cringe when I look at IMU’s web pages. All right, an innocent mistake was made by the distinguished IMU mathematicians, who were uninformed in the history, what are we – what are you – to do now?

There is a popular misconception that one who does nothing, does nothing wrong. In fact, now that you know the truth, doing nothing would transform an innocent mistake of 1981 into an intentional error of IMU and all mathematicians. This would stain forever our profession. Remember Grigory Perelman’s refusal of the Field’s Medal and the Millennium Prize, and his exodus from mathematics? Now you understand why this great mind did not wish to be a “poster buy” for mathematics, where the majority condones immorality of the minority.

We ought to do something to correct the 1981 mistake. Putting myself in your shoes, I realize the complexity of the situation. In my opinion, it is noble to admit a mistake of your predecessors and correct it. How? For example, you can let the Rolf Nevanlinna’s Prize expire, effective immediately or by 2018 ICM Congress at the latest. Let it expire, and create a new prize in honor of a person, whose profile will be appreciated by all people in the world: John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, or Norbert Wiener.

If the $15,000 donated by Finland is a concern, I am willing to contribute this amount every four years, even though in 1978 I started my American life as a refugee, after revoking my citizenship in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

This is certainly an important public affair, and the whole world is watching. I brought the public awareness to the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize in my book The Scholar and the State: In Search of Van der Waerden (Birkhäuser, Basel, 2015). Make me proud of you when I cover your decision in my forthcoming memoirs Memory in Flashback: A Mathematician’s Adventures on Both Sides of the Atlantic.

 

Happy New Year, dear colleagues,

 

Alexander Soifer

A Concerned Citizen of the World

 

After (!) the meeting of the Executive Committee was completed, IMU announced that it took place in London on April 1–2, 2017. Three weeks later, on April 24, 2017, my request for information, was answered by the IMU President:

 

Dear Prof. Soifer,

 

We did discuss the issue regarding the Nevanlinna Prize at our recent EC meeting, and we made a decision.

But, as I am sure you understand, we need to discuss this with the partners involved.

Before we have reached an agreement with them, we will not go public.

 

We ask for your understanding of this way to proceed.

 

Best regards,

 

Shigefumi Mori

IMU President

 

This is a mysterious reply. If IMU were to reject my plea for the prize’s name change, President Mori could have simply stated so. Thus, “we made a decision” sounded promising. My worry was about the IMU desire “to reach an agreement” with IMU partners. How long would negotiations last? What would happen if “partners” disagree with IMU’s “decision”? I expressed my concerns to President Mori still in April–2017 without receiving any reply. I repeated my inquiry about the state of the matter and finally on June 11, 2017, I received the following response from the IMU President:

To the memory of my friend and teacher Branko Grünbaum (October 2, 1929–September 14, 2018)

It is my opinion that the tiniest moral matter is more important than all of science, and that one can only maintain the moral quality of the world by standing up to any immoral project.

  • Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer

During 1959–1962, the Finnish Analyst Rolf Nevanlinna (1895–1980) served as the President of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), the highest organization in our profession. In 1981 IMU Executive Committee decided to create a Rolf Nevanlinna Prize for “Mathematical Aspects of Information Sciences,” i.e., Mathematical Aspects of Computer Science. A year later Helsinki University, Finland, offered to pay for the prize (a gold medal with Nevanlinna’s profile and cash to match the Field’s Medal, or ca. $15,000 total). The IMU Executive Committee accepted the Finnish offer and has been giving the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize once every four years at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM), the last time on August 1, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro.

What was Nevanlinna’s contribution to mathematical aspects of computer science, one may ask? The IMU Internet page answers:

The prize was named in honor of Rolf Nevanlinna … who in the 1950s had taken the initiative to the computer organization at Finnish universities.

Is that all? How could IMU exhibit such an eclipse of common sense by taking “initiative to the computer organization at Finnish universities” for a major contribution to Theoretical Computer Science?

I had heard about this prize without paying any attention to the person of Professor Nevanlinna until my twenty-year long research for and writing of the book The Scholar and the State: In Search of Van der Waerden [1]. In studying the documents of the 1946 job search at Zürich University, I discovered that Rolf Nevanlinna and Bartel Leendert van der Warden were the finalists for the professorship. Nevanlinna got the job (while Van der Waerden had to wait until the next opening occurred in 1950).

I learned that Nevanlinna served as the Rektor of Helsinki University – till the end of the horrific World War II, when he was asked to vacate his position. Why, you may wonder? In his speeches and articles Nevanlinna praised Adolf Hitler as the liberator of Europe. Worse yet, Nevanlinna served as the Chair of the Finnish S.S. Recruitment Committee. You no doubt realize that S.S. was not a military force like WehrmachtS.S. was the military arm of the Nazi Party, responsible for most of the crimes against humanity, established at Nuremberg and other post-war trials. Nevanlinna’s past was well known in Zürich, and one member of the Canton government challenged his University appointment. No problem, the University and government bent history to protect their reputations, together with the reputation of the dismissed in Finland Professor Nevanlinna.

What has the IMU Executive Committee done? A common sense would tell these few distinguished officials from mathematics that they must pay attention to the moral bearings of the person, whose profile they etch on the medals. They certainly knew that Nevanlinna contributed nothing to theoretical computer science, and apparently were not bothered by that. Have the Executive members knowingly chosen a willing Nazi collaborator for the IMU Prize, or their ignorance is the protection of their integrity? Let us be charitable and presume ignorance of history until proven moral guilt.

I wrote all this and more about Nevanlinna in my 2015 book [1; pp. 189 and 286–288] and urged the IMU Executive Committee to change the name on the prize. But who reads 500-page books, and furthermore, who remembers a few pages after reading such a substantial dense volume?

Meanwhile, I was elected President (2012–2018) of the World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions (WFNMC) and as such was asked in July 2016 to give the report to the General Assembly of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI) during its Hamburg quadrennial Congress. Right before my report, I had a brief exchange with the IMU President Shigefumi Mori:

  • President, May I have your address, I would like to mail you a letter.
  • What about?
  • About one of your prizes.
  • Which one?
  • Rolf Nevanlinna Prize.
  • You know, I cannot do anything by myself, but I will present your letter to the Executive Committee.

Today, looking back at this conversation, I have a feeling that President Mori knew what I was going to write about, for otherwise how would he know – without asking me – that I will complain about the name of the prize and profile on the medal?

I presented the report about the work of WFNMC over the preceding four years and then told the roomful of the delegates about Nazi collaboration of Rolf Nevanlinna. I ended with my personal impassioned call to change the name of the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize. A long silence fell on the room, followed by enthusiastic applauds.

In Hamburg-2016, as the President, I called the meeting of the WFNMC Executive Committee. I told them about my intention to write a personal letter to IMU but would prefer to write on behalf of us all. I presented to them the relevant pages of my book [1] and asked for a vote. The Executives did not wish me to present this issue at the General Meeting of WFNMC but supported sending a letter to the IMU Executive Committee by a vote of 6 in favor, 1 abstained, and 1 against. My letter was approved almost without changes, and off it went to IMU President Mori.

Mori acknowledged the letter and promised to put it on the agenda of the next IMU Executive Committee meeting, 8 months later, in April-2017.

There were a few justifications for keeping the prize unchanged. To begin with, changing the prize’s name would mean for IMU to acknowledge its mistake, which for many people is a hard act to perform. And so, I sent my second, this time a personal letter to Shigefumi Mori and the IMU Executive Committee, with two essential points. I offered to personally pay $15,000 to IMU every four years to eliminate IMU’s dependence upon Finnish funding. For someone, who started his American life as a refugee (legal, I shall add, to avoid a temper tensions of Mr. Trump), this was a way to put my considerable money where my mouth was. I also observed that while the 1981 IMU Executive Committee could have pleaded ignorance, now they could not do so, for I informed them of the Nazi collaboration of Rolf Nevanlinna. Keeping the Nevanlinna name on an IMU prize would stain Mathematics forever, I concluded.

Geombinatorics readers know [2] that IMU has been keeping dates and locations of its Executive Committee meetings a tightly guarded secret. I would have preferred glasnost, a Mikhail Gorbachev’s word that translates as openness and transparency. Why does a discussion of a prize name change have to be conducted behind closed doors?

Only in late April-2017, did I learn that their meeting took place on April 1–2, 2017 in London, and asked President Mori to share their decision. His April 24, 2017, reply was a riddle. On the one hand, he wrote,

We did discuss the issue regarding the Nevanlinna Prize at our recent EC meeting, and we made a decision.

 

On the other hand, he was not going to disclose that decision:

 

But, as I am sure you understand, we need to discuss this with the partners involved. Before we have reached an agreement with them, we will not go public. We ask for your understanding of this way to proceed.

I met this part without understanding. “What if you do not reach an agreement with partners?” I asked Mori, who went non-communicado for what felt like an eternity.

 

On August 10, 2018, IMU President Mori, reappeared:

 

Dear Professor Soifer,

 

This is to let you know of the decision that IMU has finally made at GA [General Assembly of IMU, July 30–31, 2018].

It is the Resolution 7 of the attached “RESOL2018.pdf”, which you can also find under the item Resolutions of “18th GA in São Paulo, Brazil” in the URL https://www.mathunion.org/organization/general-assembly

Best regards,

Shigefumi Mori

President of the International Mathematical Union

Phone: +81-75-753-7227

Let me reproduce for you Resolution 7 approved by the IMU’s General Assembly:

Resolutions of the IMU General Assembly 2018

Resolution 7

The General Assembly requests the 2019–2022 IMU Executive Committee, giving due consideration to all the issues involved, to determine and set up statutes for a prize continuing and with the same purpose and scope as the Nevanlinna Prize but with a new name and appropriate funding to be secured. The statutes of the new prize will be sent to the Adhering Organizations for approval by a postal ballot.

It is ironic that the last Rolf Nevanlinna Prize was presented to the deserving winner the next day after the name change decision was made.

As you can see, one person empowered by truth and glasnost can affect a major change. I hope this time IMU will choose for this prize the name of a great theoretical computer scientist of high moral standards, such as John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, or Claude Shannon.

It is surreal to see thousands of otherwise good people exhibit moral relativism and often hide behind tired slogans like “What can I do alone!” Is silence truly golden? The most sensitive among us, such as Grigory Perelman, walk away from the Profession populated by the majority, for which Mathematics is all that matters, and ethics of the Profession matters not. This majority pumpers itself by calling the departed “crazy” without realizing that crazy is the majority.

A distinguished member of the Geombinatorics Editorial Board believed that while in my call for the name change, I was making some good points, the chances of IMU changing anything were very slim. I thought so too. However, we ought to do all that we can to raise our Profession to a higher moral ground. Anything less than that would compromise our integrity and guarantee the victory of the status quo in this world that needs so much change. L.E.J. Brouwer rightly believed that “the tiniest moral matter is more important than all of science.” In my opinion, ethics is not a tiny external fare but an essential inner part of our Profession.

Bibliography

Soifer, A., The Scholar and the State: In Search of Van der Waerden,

Birkhäuser, Basel, 2015.

Soifer, A., The Secretive Life of the International Mathematics Union,

Geombinatorics XXVII(1), July 2017, 20–25.