Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Three thoughts on Anatoly Vershik's article...

Via Peter Woit and Luca Trevisan comes a pointer to an article by Anatoly Vershik in the new Notices of the AMS, lamenting the role of money prizes in mathematics. Three thoughts:
  • "the newspapers, especially in Russia, are presently “discussing” a completely different question: Is mathematical education, and mathematics itself, really necessary in contemporary society ". At the risk of sounding patronizing, I find it terribly worrisome that the place that spawns such amazing mathematicians, and has such a legendary training program for scientists, should even indulge in such a discussion. Especially now, with all the handwringing in the US about the lack of mathematical training at school level, it seems a particularly bad time to abdicate what is a clearly a competitive advantage.

  • He talks about not understanding "the American way of life" as regards how money is viewed. There's a juxtapositon of images that I've always been struck by, and that tennis lovers will recognize: At Wimbledon, the winner is crowned with a fanfare, royalty, and a trophy (or plate); the prize money is never really discussed. At the US Open on the other hand, along with the fanfare comes the huge check handed out by some corporate sponsor while the PA blares out the amount. The trophy presentation, although making for good photo-ops, seems almost anticlimactic.

    I am a little skeptical though whether offering prizes like the Clay prize convinces people that mathematics is a lucrative profession. After all, this hasn't happened for the Nobel prizes.

  • On the false-duality: I've heard a variation of this argument many times. It goes basically like this: "Either you're interested in subject X and don't need motivation, or you aren't, in which case no amount of motivation is going to help". This is possibly true for identifying students likely to make the transition to being professionals in subject X. In fact, I've heard an anecdote from the world of music, about a maestro who would tell all his students that they would fail professionally at being musicians. His argument was that only the ones who cared enough to prove him wrong had what it took to survive.

    One has to realize though that the teaching of a subject is not about creating Mini-Mes: only a small fraction of the students we come in contact with will become professional computer scientists/mathematicians/whatever. But a large fraction of these students will vote, many of them will go onto position of influence either in industry or government, and they will all contribute to a general awareness of the discipline. So it's a mistake to give up on motivating students; even if they never end up proving theorems for a living, a better appreciation for those who do will help all of us.


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