I belong to a number of professional societies and one of them is the American Mathematical Society. The September issue of one of their publications, the Notices, just arrived and I read with interest a statement by one of the world’s most distinguished mathematicians, Brown University’s David Mumford. While most members of the public have never heard of him, Mumford has been a famous in mathematical circles for many years, having received the Fields Medal in 1974 for his work in algebraic geometry. The Fields Medal is an extraordinary recognition, perhaps the most prestigious in mathematics. It is given only once every four years to a mathematician under the age of 40. Another honor, the Wolf Foundation Prize in mathematics (and now the Abel prize) is considered by many the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel. Now Mumford has also won the Wolf Prize, given in Israel every year to a living scientist or artist for “achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples … irrespective of nationality, race, colour, religion, sex or political views.” Mumford’s statement exemplified the purpose of the award, which carries with it a cash award of $100,000 (shared by the winners). Here is part of the statement, released the day after the prize was bestowed:
Mathematics in Israel flourishes today on [a] high international plane. Its lifeblood is the free exchange of ideas with scholars visiting, teaching, learning from each other, traveling everywhere in the world. But sadly this is not the case in occupied Palestine where education struggles to continue and travel is greatly limited. Therefore I have decided to donate my part of the Wolf Prize in Mathematics to the cause of helping the university community in occupied Palestine survive and flourish. Its continued existence affects crucially the opportunities and dreams of the next generation and specifically whether potential mathematicians there have the opportunity to join this international community of scholars.
For this reason, I am giving half my prize to the Israeli foundation ‘Gisha‘ which works to further the right to education and freedom of movement of Palestinians and half to Birzeit University directly. (Notices of the AMS, September 2008, p. 919)
Mumford rejects the accusations that stuffed his overflowing hate email that this simple declaration about the freedom of intellectuals to travel and collaborate makes him a racist and anti-semite. He also declined to take credit for an unusual act of intellectual statesmanship. I agree. We have reached a sorry state when a straightforward declaration of a principle even espoused by the morally challenged Bush administration should be considered so praiseworthy. But alas, it is. There is no shortage of people who believe speaking in favor of Palestinians is the same as speaking against Israel.
Mumford made another important contribution in his Notices piece that explained his action. He called attention to the existence of Birzeit University, a vigorous, intellectually robust and important force in the West Bank of occupied Palestine. Birzeit is split evenly between male and female students and has excellent faculty. It’s been around since the early 1970s and has suffered numerous obstacles and privations under the occupation authorities but continues to produce well trained scientists, engineers, lawyers, artists and scholars of all kinds, including mathematicians. It has just started a Center of Excellence in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. Our picture of Palestine is a benighted land in chaos, composed of kids throwing rocks and terrorists launching rockets. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of a population being collectively and cruelly punished. What we too rarely see is the vibrant country and its robust and talented intellectual community.
Professor Mumford’s Opinion piece in the Notices gave us a glimpse of that. Good for him.