I have just arrived in Madrid for the International Congress of Mathematicians. Held every four years for more than a century, it features a number of plenary talks (Avi Wigderson will talk about P versus NP and computational complexity) and a number of talks in parallel sections devoted to specific topics (one of the parallel sections is on computer science).

Being used to the small scale, and the biannual frequency, of STOC and FOCS, it’s hard to adjust to the size and the self-importance here. Tomorrow, for example, we start with an opening cerimony. Four years ago, in Beijing, the opening cerimony was held in the Great Hall of the People, and President Jiang Zemin attended. That’s like having the conference in Washington D.C. and holding the opening cerimony in the Capitol, with George Bush coming to give a speech and congratulate the new Field Medalists. One can almost imagine the speech, “I want to congratulate these good people, because God made them do good work, and we appreciate their good work. September 11 changed everything, so we must stay the course, just like they stayed their course when doing their good work.”

If I understand the program correctly, the Field Medals and the Nevanlinna Price will be announced during the opening cerimony. As part of taking itself very seriously, it is a tradition of the conference that the identities of the recipients are kept secret until then. When I registered, for example, I received a big bag with two huge and heavy books, which are the proceedings. (There are a lot of talks, and for each talk there is a paper of up to 25 pages.) It turns out that those two books, however (each heavier than a FOCS/STOC proceedings), are just Volume II and Volume III of the proceedings. Volume I is distributed later, because it contains articles about the prize winners (plus all the articles of the plenary speakers; Volume II and III contain the articles of the parallel sections).

Since the conference is held only once every four years, and Mathematics is a really vast subject, with thousands of researchers, there is a big fuss made over who gives the invited talks.

At the registration desk, invited speakers have a separate line. At the opening cerimony, the best seats are for press, IMU functionaries and ”authorities” (that’s what it says in the program), then there are very good seats for the speakers who give plenary talks, then seats in the back for the speakers who talk in the parallel sessions, and then, well behind, are all the others. And in uncharacteristic (for the US government) official show of support for the sciences, the American Embassy in Spain is holding a party for the American invited speakers.

Given what is at stake (I mean, who wouldn’t want to stand in shorter lines, to see the opening cerimony up close, and to meet a US Ambassador?), the program committee that makes the invitations is kept secret, to protect the committee members from too much external pressure. I wonder how this “double blind” system would work at STOC and FOCS: the program committee invites speakers without knowing what paper they will present, and nobody knows who is on the program committee.

The big story of this conference will probably be the official announcement that Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture has been verified. The story has a fascinating human element, from the excentricity of Perelman to the rush of various teams to complete the verification, and it has already been the subject, last week, of a beautiful New York Times article by Dennis Overbye. In this week’s New Yorker there is another article by Sylvia Nasar, of Beautiful Mind fame. More tomorrow on Perelman, on whether, as expected, he will be awarded the Fields Medal, and whether, as expected, he will fail to show up.

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