Truth, Like Water, Finds Its Way Out – By Alexander Soifer
Truth, Like Water, Finds Its Way Out – By Alexander Soifer
Geombinatorics XXVIII(2), October 2018, 106–111.
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, USA
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 . 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 Wehrmacht. S.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  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  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
President of the International Mathematical Union
Let me reproduce for you Resolution 7 approved by the IMU’s General Assembly:
Resolutions of the IMU General Assembly 2018
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.
Soifer, A., The Scholar and the State: In Search of Van der Waerden,
Birkhäuser, Basel, 2015.
Geombinatorics XXVII(1), July 2017, 20–25.