History of the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics – 12/13/2022 – Marcelo Viana

At the end of world War 1, Europe was bitterly divided, and the world of mathematics could not stay away. By decision of the International Mathematical Union, the mathematicians of the defeated nations – in particular Germany – have been banned of the 1920 International Congress of Mathematicians in Strasbourg. This situation lasted until the 1932 Congress in Zurich, on the eve of a new world conflict.

The 1924 Congress would have taken place in New York, but by 1922 it was already clear that, due to the policy of exclusion, it would not be possible to obtain funding from the United States, a country whose scientific development was closely tied to Germany.

In a critical situation, but unable to change its position, the International Mathematical Union breathed a sigh of relief when the Jean Charles The fields (1863-1932) offered to hold the Congress in Toronto. Fields worked hard, traveling nonstop between North America and Europe to organize an event that turned out to be a success. As a diplomat, he avoids confronting the policy of exclusion, while specifying that it must end.

The Toronto Congress lasted six days and brought together 444 participants from 28 countries. No Brazilian. At the end, the delegates took part in the spectacular continental excursion, 18 days (!) by train to the west coast of Canada “to discover the landscape and the natural resources of the country”.

In total, the Toronto Convention came up with a balance of $2,700. On Fields’s proposal, it was decided that most of it should be used “for two medals to be awarded at the next international congresses of mathematicians”.

Fields participated in formulating the award. It is because of his influence that the medal has an unusual purpose, quite different from the Nobel Prize, for example: it is given “in recognition of the work accomplished, but also to stimulate new achievements”. Another point he insisted on, this time without success, is that the award should not bear anyone’s name.

The first presentation of the Fields Medals took place at the Congress in Oslo in 1936. Unfortunately, the creator of the award had died four years earlier. In his will, he left US$47,000 to fund the prize. An additional anonymous donation was made in 1966. But even today, funding for the medal remains low and in deficit.

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