Behind the scenes of the Fields medals, James Bond atmosphere

On July 5, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) awarded its prizes, including the famous Fields Medals, to Hugo Duminil-Copin, June Huh, James Maynard and Maryna Viazovska. These medals are often referred to as the “Nobel of mathematics”, but this is not a good comparison. To start with a “detail”, a Nobel laureate receives 10,000,000 Swedish kronor (more than 900,000 euros), while the Fields Medal pays “only” 15,000 Canadian dollars (or 11,000 euros).
Most importantly, a Fields Medal winner must be under 40 years of age, which is far from the case for the Nobel Prize. Moreover, even if the medal recognizes remarkable work, it also expresses the jury’s conviction that the winner will have major successes in the future. It is a question of encouraging a very promising young mathematician to continue an exceptional career: it is thus also a bet on the future.

The work of the selection committee is therefore not easy, especially since there are other constraints. The official statutes specify that no more than four medals may be awarded, once every four years, and that they must reflect the diversity of mathematics: an almost impossible mission.

In the past, mathematicians often worked alone, but this is no longer the case today, and this is to be welcomed. Unfortunately, two or three collaborators cannot share a medal for joint work. In any case, this award ceremony is a traditional event in the mathematical community, which eagerly awaits the official revelation of the laureates and does not refrain from making predictions in the year preceding.
A month ago, a journalist from Le Monde asked me if I had any information about the winners. I told him that I did not have any, but that I was pleased, because it showed that the selection committee was working in a confidential way. I did send him a few names I had in mind. A week before the announcement, the reporter knew the names of the winners he had obtained, under embargo, but he could not reveal them. My predictions turned out to be correct…

A confidential job

I know absolutely nothing about the debates that took place and that led to this choice, but I can describe the functioning of this committee, since I was a member of it, eight years ago. Without a doubt, it was the most thorough selection of laureates that I have ever had the opportunity to participate in. The committee consisted of twelve members, born in eleven different countries. The chair is the president of the IMU, but the names of the other eleven members are kept secret until the official announcement of the winners.

When one is invited to participate in this committee, three years before, one receives very strict instructions, a bit like James Bond on a secret service mission! No information is passed on about the debates that took place for the previous medals. Then began the exchange of opinions by e-mail (on secure servers), a few video conferences and two face-to-face meetings (in Zurich and New York, in discrete locations). At the last meeting, we were left with a short list of twelve names, which had to be reduced to four. Each of us was asked to make an oral presentation of one of the mathematicians still in the running. Then, we had to discuss, seek consensus and vote, to arrive at a very satisfactory result.
This year’s winners know that they were selected after a long and rigorous process. They should be proud.

Translated with DeepL