An Inconsistent Culture

In 2013, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and venture capitalist Yuri Milner designed the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. This is an annual award given to individual mathematicians. The prize is worth $3 million. The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are also given to individual scientists and are worthy of each $3 million as well. This essay focuses on the prize in mathematics only.

The prize in mathematics was given to four mathematicians on Sunday, November 9, 2014 in a ceremony in Silicon Valley, California. There has been some criticism of the huge financial amount of the prize. Even Terence Tao, who is one of this year’s prize recipients, suggested that more prizes of smaller amount might be more effective. It is not hard to see it would be much more beneficial if a smaller amount is given to more mathematicians. Another way of helping mathematicians in a better way is to fund centers of research in mathematics and mathematics institutions.

The ceremony was inconsistent. Two major groups of people joined the ceremony. These two groups are very different in nature. One group is a set of world’s prominent mathematicians and the other group is a set of world’s most well-known actors and actresses. In order to elaborate on the difference between these two groups let us look at their usual gatherings. At A Princeton University conference, the world’s leading mathematicians discuss brilliant ideas while wearing their very casual clothes. They do not care about how they look; they are not there to be seen. They only care about “ideas.” At the Oscars, the world’s most famous actresses and actors spend a full hour before the ceremony in front of the public showing their beautiful clothes while photographers take hundreds of pictures from them. There is no “idea” discussed there; looks only matter. This is the exact opposite of the scientific conference. These are two completely different cultures. But there is no controversy. There can be two or even more different cultures and interests. But now we have a new phenomenon. Now we have a gathering where the mathematicians are wearing expensive clothes and there is a red carpet for them to walk on. The mathematicians are treated like Hollywood stars. Their ideas are not discussed in the ceremony. There is almost no word about their ideas. The Breakthrough Prize ceremony is probably the best indication of this new mixed and inconsistent culture.

Some people might argue this is good because this way, scientists “can be seen.” Is this the way scientists are supposed to be seen? Probably not. Scientists are seen through their contributions to science – not their looks. One might also say this is a good way to motivate students to become mathematicians. Does this kind of appreciation give students a motivation to become mathematicians? Again probably not. Is it good for students to become mathematicians because there is a chance they might be among the four recipients of the prize and they might therefore win $3 million? It is true that mathematicians have a darker future to look forward to compared to that of people in technology. A much better way to solve this problem is to found and fund mathematics institutions and let them take care of a much larger population of mathematics researchers. The process in which a student decides to study mathematics is clear. They are taught; they notice they have some talent; they develop a notion of research in mathematics; they talk to some professors then they discover they should study mathematics. They would not watch mathematicians receive millions of dollars and then decide they should become mathematicians. This might be the case in the future, but now it is not how a mathematician is raised.