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Andrey Okounkov: 'Happiness Is not about Proving Something to Other People'

In the whole history of mathematics just 8 winners of the highest award - the Field Prize - have come from Russia. One of them is Andrey Okounkov, Academic Supervisor at the International Laboratory of Representation Theory and Mathematical Physics HSE. On Hamburg Reckoning, a weekly programme which broadcasts interviews with major academics on current Russian issues on the OTR TV channel, he talked about his journey from economics to mathematics, about the Faculty of Mathematics at HSE and what makes mathematicians happy.

How it all started...

— Andrey, not so long ago Alexander Kuleshov, Director of the Institute for Information Transmission Problems was sitting where you are now in this studio and he told us that he had been a remarkably gifted child prodigy but it didn’t help him when he went to university to study mechanics and mathematics. Tell us what kind of child you were. Were you a classic brainbox?

 I don’t think so. I was just an ordinary kid. I think the thing I liked most at school was going to play basketball in the sports hall after lessons. We used to go to the shooting range, to the literature class and our teacher used to tell us stories.

— While you were growing up, were you successful at school, a diligent pupil? Were there signs that your name would enter the annals of world mathematics?

 I really can’t say. I took part in lots of different competitions. I won the Moscow city olympiad for German three times. I even entered the olympiad for music once although I don’t have any musical gifts at all, but my teacher sent me. I think there was a big mistake. I had to write an essay on the subject of ‘music in Lenin’s life’. I got some very fancy certificate for that.

I was never entered for any mathematics olympiads - so no clues there. I went to district competitions for nearly every subject but I didn’t go to a single city one.

— What made you start a degree in Economics?

— I went to a specialist economics and maths school in the last years of high school, which still exists and flourishes under the auspices of the Economics Faculty at Moscow State University (MGU). A lot of famous people have been through that school. The Rector of HSE, Yaroslav Kuzminov was headmaster there for example. It was an amazing place. That’s where I met my wife, Inna, and my closest friends.

— You have had an unusual life as a mathematician in that respect. People usually leave mathematics to go into other areas. To come into mathematics from economics is very rare. What happened that made you study economics and then become a mathematician?

— At the economics faculty I studied economic cybernetics. It was a group with a strong mathematical bent. There were some quite famous mathematicians in the department - Valery F. Pakhomov, Kochergin, Kostrikin - they were powerful mathematical minds. Mechanics and mathematics was kind of the next step. But I don’t think it was so out of the blue: I had some idea of what studying mechanics and mathematics was like while I was studying economics.

— So at what point did you realise that you are a mathematician?

— I liked economics a lot, I am interested in things about human society but it seemed to me that I was better at maths, that I think more clearly about mathematics.

— What was the moment when you made that step?

— It was when I came back after the army. It was easy to do then because there were special conditions at MGU for people who had done military service. We were given very big grants. I remember that my grant with all the extras was 125 roubles a month. Crazy money. For example, I could buy a massive bouquet of flowers for Inna without making a hole in my wallet.

Not long ago Alexander Kuleshov talked to you about mathematicians being regarded as highly eligible bachelors. I felt I was entirely eligible in those days.

About the Mathematics Faculty and the Laboratory at HSE

— Are you able to recreate that fruitful atmosphere of your student days where you work now with your own students?

— It’s much more complicated. Imagine, I spend most of my time in New York and am in Moscow for just a few months each year. If you take the number of financial workers, artists and politicians, its probably similar to Moscow. But the number of mathematicians is incomparable. The Math Faculty at HSE attracts some remarkable talent, a huge number of students and young people. Columbia doesn’t attract so many. By American standards our graduate courses are doing alright, but nothing like the same scale, the muster of people is so much less. So even in such a good university where I work, by Russian standards I would think that, in some respects,I was in the provinces.   

— You have a new laboratory opening at HSE.

— Yes, it has already opened and been working for a year.

— Why did you do that?

— The HSE Math Faculty is very similar, in some senses, at one with the environment of the old independent universities which continue to this day but have now been reincarnated as the Math Faculty. It’s a culture, a huge number of ideas and people who are very dear to me. I thought it would be a great idea, influenced as I was by a trip to the annual summer school at Yaroslavl which runs a lab, directed by Fedor Bogomolov. I was absolutely stunned by the number of young people there.

— That’s Fedor Bogomolov, Professor at the Courant Institute in New York who has a laboratory here?

— Yes, we run two labs in parallel. It’s one thing when you give a talk at a seminar where there are 20-30 people and another when you see a huge auditorium packed mainly with a vast number of young people. Their interest in the kind of mathematics I tried to present to them absolutely amazed me and continues to amaze me. Students at the HSE Math Faculty are absolutely extraordinary young guys and girls. There are too many for me to count them all but in all the age groups there are remarkable people. The main aim of all this is to keep it going. I would say at this stage, to grow back to the level of the Moscow math environment there used to be.

On Youth and Age for Mathematicians

— There is a view that the best thing that can happen to a young mathematician is when he comes up with a proof that is deemed to be worth a Fields Medal. But what’s the best thing for an old mathematician?

— Initially, I disagree with that statement. I think that happiness is not about proving something to other people to show off how good you are at math. People are just like that. It really helps to have someone to acknowledge our successes and cheer us on. The main joy of mathematics is when you realise something really deep, when it makes you catch your breath. In those rare moments when I strike upon something like that, I always rush to tell my friends about it and it helps me a lot if they say, yes, that’s really amazing. 

— How do you envisage your old age?

— I guess that will be when it becomes hard for me to work on cutting edge science. Maybe I’ll spend more time popularising it instead. Maybe I’ll write some books to explain things that I think are important but so far have only been written about in inaccessible language.

Full video is available here (in Russian).

Source: Public Television of Russia

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