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This Mathematical Month - August: A Brief Look at Past Events and Episodes in the Mathematical Community

Monthly postings of vignettes on people, publications, and mathematics to inform and entertain.

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August 1893: The Chicago Mathematics Congress was held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition. This meeting was a significant event for the mathematicians at the newly established University of Chicago. Led by E. H. Moore, the Chicago mathematics department had begun hiring some outstanding German mathematicians, notably Oskar Bolza and Heinrich Maschke. Felix Klein traveled from Göttingen to attend the Congress, and his opening remarks were the basis for his paper "The Present State of Mathematics," in which he called for mathematicians to form ties internationally. "[T]he Chicago Congress acted as a harbinger of a new era of international cooperation in mathematics: shortly afterward European national organizations began laying plans for the First International Congress of Mathematicians, to be held in Zurich in 1896," wrote Karen H. Parshall and David E. Rowe in their book The Emergence of the American Mathematical Research Community, 1876-1900: J. J. Sylvester, Felix Klein, and E. H. Moore (American Mathematical Society/London Mathematical Society, 1994).

August 1998: The Kiiti Morita Gardens are dedicated at the AMS. Kiiti Morita (1915-1995) made significant contributions to both algebra and topology during a long and fruitful career. An obituary in the June/July 1997 Notices stated that his work in algebra "emerges as not only supplying immensely useful results, but as strongly contributing to our present mode of thinking about algebraic and geometric structures within categorical settings." The obituary also noted, "Undoubtedly, [Morita] is now considered worldwide as one of the great founders of modern general topology". When he died, his family made a generous gift to the unrestricted endowment of the AMS. To express its appreciation, the AMS designated a section of the garden in front of its headquarters building in Providence as the Kiiti Morita Gardens. Members of Morita's family attended the dedication ceremony on August 4, 1998.

August 1990: Edward Witten was awarded the Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Kyoto. This was the first time that someone who is primarily a physicist was awarded the Fields Medal. Witten received the medal "for his work connecting theoretical physics to modern mathematics." The Fields Medal is the world's highest honor in mathematics, and at the time there was some controversy over its being awarded to Witten, because he is not a mathematician in the traditional sense. Within a few years, however, as the impact of his work on mathematics continued to grow, the controversy dissipated. Any remaining doubts were extinguished in 1994, with the revolution wrought in topology and geometry by the so-called Seiberg-Witten equations.

August 1989: The AMS Council passed a motion to begin having contested elections for the office of AMS President. For most of its history, the AMS had uncontested elections for President. The election ballots listed only one Presidential candidate, that chosen by the Nominating Committee; there was the possibility of write-in candidates, but in practice the Nominating Committee's candidate always won. During the 1980s, members began questioning this practice. There were no complaints about past Presidents; there were complaints only about the election procedure, which some jokingly labeled "Soviet-style". At the same time, the Presidency was becoming a more active and less honorific post. During discussions within the Council and by a specially appointed committee, a consensus developed that the person elected as President should have a strong enough desire to fill the post to be willing to run for the office and risk defeat. On August 6, 1989, at its meeting in Boulder, Colorado, the Council approved the following motion: "The Nominating Committee and the Council shall put forward two candidates for President." The motion passed with the amendment: "The Council should review this policy after three elections for the office of President-Elect." As it turned out, the policy has remained in place ever since.

August 1989: Pi Mu Epsilon, the National Honorary Mathematics Society, marked its 75th anniversary with a Diamond Jubilee Celebration at the Joint Summer Mathematics Meetings in Boulder, Colorado. That same month, the AMS Council passed the following resolution: "Undergraduate mathematics is the foundation upon which future mathematicians build experience and knowledge. It is vital for the future of our discipline that undergraduate mathematics flourish. The Council of the American Mathematical Society congratulates Pi Mu Epsilon for its seventy-five years of nurturing excellence in undergraduate mathematics and it offers best wishes for the future." At that time the AMS also provided funds to establish an annual prize to be given by Pi Mu Epsilon. This prize, which is still being given each year, honors excellence in student papers presented at Pi Mu Epsilon meetings. Pi Mu Epsilon was founded in 1914 at Syracuse University with the goal of promoting scholarship in mathematics. Today, through its more than 300 chapters at colleges and universities across the United States, the society seeks to promote scholarly activity among undergraduate mathematics students. Find out more about Pi Mu Epsilon.

August 1988: The AMS celebrated its centennial. The landmark meeting took place in Providence, Rhode Island, home of the Society's headquarters. About 1700 people endured the record heat and humidity that engulfed New England during the meeting. G. D. Mostow was AMS president at the time, and he presided over the opening ceremonies in the Providence Performing Arts Center. Gifts and good wishes came from presidents of several other math societies, including Christopher Zeeman, then president of the London Mathematical Society. That same evening, the opening reception was held in the Rhode Island State House, complete with a birthday cake. The scientific program included a special set of lectures, "Mathematics into the Twentieth Century", by 18 young U.S.-based mathematicians who were deemed likely to be research leaders in the coming 25 years. Among these, three already had Fields Medals, and two others would receive that honor a few years later. There were also three survey lectures by legendary senior figures in mathematics, Raoul Bott, Peter D. Lax, and Saunders Mac Lane. Among the social events was a reception for those who had also attended the Society's Semicentennial in 1938. Mac Lane spoke at that reception, as did John W. Green and William Ted Martin. A traditional Rhode Island clam bake rounded out the social program. Throughout 1988 the Notices carried several special features about the Society and its Centennial; an article about the Centennial meeting appears in the September 1988 issue.

August 1986: The International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Berkeley, California. The AMS Meetings Department handled all of the logistics of this complex event, which was made yet more complex by international politics: Almost half of the invited speakers from the Soviet Union were unable to attend. "This is a serious loss for everybody concerned and defeats the purpose of the Congress," said Andrew Gleason, chair of the ICM Steering Committee, at the closing ceremonies. Most of the manuscripts of the absent speakers were available at the Congress, and in some cases their talks were delivered by other people. Nevertheless the lack of their personal presence was keenly felt and diminished the value of the meeting. On the positive side, at the opening ceremonies of the Congress, the 1986 Fields Medals and Nevanlinna Prize were awarded. The Fields Medals went to Simon Donaldson, Gerd Faltings, and Michael Freedman, and the Nevanlinna Prize went to Leslie Valiant. Faltings had recently proved the celebrated Mordell Conjecture, and the work of Donaldson and of Freedman demonstrated the surprising richness of four-manifold topology. Valiant was honored for his many and diverse contributions to theoretical computer science. Freedman, then a new father, carried his baby onto the stage of UC Berkeley's Greek Theater when he collected his Fields Medal. The AMS published the proceedings of the Congress in 1987, as well as a later volume that carried English translations of nine papers that had originally appeared in Russian in the proceedings.

August 1983: The International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) was held in Warsaw. The Congress was originally to be held in 1982, but it was delayed for a year due to the imposition of martial law in Poland. About 2500 people from 60 countries attended the meeting. Lennart Carleson, who was president of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), spoke during the opening ceremonies on August 16, 1983. He introduced the president of the Congress, Czeslaw Olech, who welcomed the participants to Poland and communicated Polish mathematicians' enthusiasm for the Congress. In particular, Olech noted that Kazmierz Kuratowski had been very active in the IMU and was a strong advocate for holding the ICM in Poland. Kuratowski did not live to see the Congress in Warsaw; he died in 1980. Receiving Fields Medals at the 1983 ICM were Alain Connes, William P. Thurston, and Shing-Tung Yau.

August 1966: The International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) was held in Moscow. Four Fields Medals were awarded, to Michael F. Atiyah, Paul J. Cohen, Alexandre Grothendieck, and Stephen Smale. This Congress was unusual for bringing a focus on world political events. In Moscow during the ICM, Smale held a press conference in which he denounced the United States for the Vietnam War and for the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also criticized the Soviet Union, in particular for its brutal suppression of Hungary ten years earlier and for its persecution of two dissident writers. News of the press conference was carried in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other outlets. Grothendieck carried out his own protest over the treatment of the dissident writers by refusing to attend the Congress. Léon Motchane, founder and director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques attended and accepted Grothendieck's Fields Medal on his behalf. Michael Artin recalled that, after the closing banquet held in the Kremlin, he and Hyman Bass roamed through the halls bearing a petition criticizing the Vietnam War. For the full story about Smale's political activities, see the book Stephen Smale: The Mathematician Who Broke the Dimension Barrier , by Steve Batterson (AMS, 2000).

August 1955: Algebraic Number Theory Symposium was held in Tokyo and Nikko, Japan. This was one of the first international mathematical conferences held in Japan after World War II and a crucial event in helping Japanese mathematicians reestablish international contacts. Among the Japanese attendees were two young mathematicians, Goro Shimura and Yutaka Taniyama. It was at this conference that Taniyama formulated was to become the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture, which, forty years later, was a key element in Andrew Wiles 's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.

August 1893: The Chicago Mathematics Congress was held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition. This meeting was a significant event for the mathematicians at the newly established University of Chicago. Led by E. H. Moore, the Chicago mathematics department had begun hiring some outstanding German mathematicians, notably Oskar Bolza and Heinrich Maschke. Felix Klein traveled from Göttingen to attend the Congress, and his opening remarks were the basis for his paper "The Present State of Mathematics," in which he called for mathematicians to form ties internationally. "[T]he Chicago Congress acted as a harbinger of a new era of international cooperation in mathematics: shortly afterward European national organizations began laying plans for the First International Congress of Mathematicians, to be held in Zurich in 1896," wrote Karen H. Parshall and David E. Rowe in their book The Emergence of the American Mathematical Research Community, 1876-1900: J. J. Sylvester, Felix Klein, and E. H. Moore (American Mathematical Society/London Mathematical Society, 1994).

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