(Updated*) Masterful math profiles appear in Quanta on day of Fields Medal announcement

Second Addendum: There’s no problem with the original post, but the first addendum is based on a misunderstanding of Kenneth Chang’s first comment. I thought he had received no advance notice about the Fields Medals and needed to turn a story around right away, as many of us have done when Nobel Prize time rolls around. In a subsequent comment, he says he got an embargoed notice three weeks ahead of the announcement.  

Some people may not have had advance notice about the Fields Medals. Embargoed press releases don’t necessarily reach everyone with an interest in writing about a given topic. I do not know how long the Quanta writers had been aware of the Fields Medal recipients.

Within the long comments thread below, Thomas Lin of Quanta says they got early access by asking for it. Asking for information often works surprisingly well. At this point it’s fair to give the Quanta writers the benefit of the doubt that if they got more lead time, it was through enterprising journalistic practice. If evidence to the contrary surfaces before the Tracker is finished being killed, we’ll let you know.

 First Addendum: Most reporters did not get advance notice of the Fields Medal winners, and were therefore faced with the daunting task of explaining some difficult math on the spot. Kenneth Chang pulls it off and adds some great background on women in math: Top Math Prize Has its First Female Winner

The Fields Medal is often called the Nobel Prize of math, and this year it got more attention than usual with the first award ever going to a female recipient, Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University.

Most news outlets scrambled to paste something together from the Stanford news release and other news sources. But at the online magazine Quanta, readers were treated to detailed, beautifully written  profiles of all four winners and one honorable mention.

All wove rich personality profiles into explanations of the mathematical achievements that led to the award, which is restricted to mathematicians under 40. There are insights to be gained on the nature of work, creativity and success.

  • In Noisy Equations, One Who Heard Music: Experts say Martin Hairer’s epic masterpiece in stochastic analysis “created a whole world.” By: Natalie Wolchover
  •  The Musical, Magical Number Theorist: The search for artistic truth and beauty has led Manjul Bhargava to some of the most profound recent discoveries in number theory. By: Erica Klarreich with reporting by Thomas Lin
  • A Grand Vision for the Impossible: Subhash Khot’s bold conjecture is helping mathematicians explore the precise limits of computation. By Thomas Lin and Erica Klarreich

And the first winner from Brazil, with some interesting background on the importance of this honor for the country: 

  • A Brazilian Wunderkind Who Calms Chaos – Artur Avila’s solutions to ubiquitous problems in chaos theory have earned him Brazil’s first Fields Medal. By Thomas Lin and Erica Klarreich

In the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup competition, popular news websites and TV shows like “Good Morning Brazil” parroted the question: How has the world’s seventh-largest economy managed to score five World Cup titles but zero Nobel Prizes? (The British biologist Peter Medawar’s tenuous connection to Brazil — born there but raised in his mother’s native England — merits at best an asterisk.) Even Argentina, that bitter soccer rival with a population one-fifth the size of Brazil’s, boasts five Nobel laureates.

  • And finally, the first ever female recipient: A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces: Maryam Mirzakhani’s monumental work draws deep connections between topology, geometry and dynamical systems. By Erica Klarreich with reporting by Thomas Lin

Other pieces mentioned with some irony that Mirzakhani describes herself as “slow”, but in this profile it makes perfect sense. While she discovered math as an Olympiad sprinter, she found she had what it took to be an utramarathon champion:

Gold medals at the mathematical Olympiad don’t always translate into success in mathematics research, McMullen observed. “In these contests, someone has carefully crafted a problem with a clever solution, but in research, maybe the problem doesn’t have a solution at all.” Unlike many Olympiad high-scorers, he said, Mirzakhani “has the ability to generate her own vision.”

Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects” of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. “And still there’s not much I can do about them,” she said.

Also appearing today is a fun and fascinating Scientific American blog post by mathematician Evelyn Lamb, How to Talk About the Fields Medal at Your Next Cocktail Party. Learn all kinds of facts about the history of the prize and how it’s not exactly like a Nobel Prize. – Faye Flam

See What Others Are Saying

16 comments / Join the Discussion

    How much time did Quanta have? In the photograph of Manjul Bhargava, you can see cherry blossoms in the background, in Princeton. That’s April. At least four months.

    To clarify, a bunch of journalists, including me, did get the names in advance under embargo — quite a bit in advance, actually: three weeks. We also received “press releases” describing the research of the medalists, and we were allowed to contact the medalists, with the notable exception of Maryam Mirzakhani (for reasonable reasons, I believe). Later, the IMU did provide the name of an expert who could talk about each medalist’s research. So we weren’t caught flat-footed.

    On the other hand, we were told not to contact others for comment, and the press releases were written by mathematicians for other mathematicians. (“Her work on Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces bridges several mathematical disciplines—hyperbolic geometry, complex analysis, topology, and dynamics—and influences them all in return.”)

    Contrast that with Quanta, which had enough time to go to France, England, Stanford and Princeton for video shoots and interviews. They talked to Mirzakhani and to other outside mathematicians, who had apparently been let in on the news.

    As I said, they did a great job.

    But in this age of nouveau journalism, it’s perhaps worthwhile to ask: is it still journalism?

    This was work done in collaboration by the International Mathematical Union for use by the International Mathematical Union. (The credits for the videos read, “Simons Foundation and International Mathematical Union.”) Did the IMU review the aticles? Certainly it wouldn’t have shown the videos sight unseen at the awards ceremony. To my eye, this veers uncomfortably in the direction of “sponsored post,” although I would expect no money changed hands. But I find the lack of transparency about the arrangement troubling.

    It’d be as if the Swedish Academy of Sciences gave the New York Times exclusive access to the Nobel Prize winners a couple of months in advance, and we did a bang-up write-up, videos and interactives that went up at 6 a.m. each day while the rest of the media scrambled from scratch and then had to point to our material.

    By the way, whatever evolves to take the place of the Tracker, I think it’s important that there’s a mechanism for conversation to bubble up from below and the outside.

    As everyone said in the other thread, this has been a invaluable resource for seeing what’s going on in our business.

    Ken, thanks again for the compliments about our coverage. I must again correct your wildly inaccurate and baseless assumptions: There was a strict wall between the journalistically produced Quanta Magazine articles and the Simons Foundation video production. Neither the IMU nor the Simons Foundation leadership reviewed these or any other Quanta articles prior to publication. In this age of native advertising (which The Times, unfortunately, has deemed necessary for business reasons), nonprofit editorially independent publications like ours have the advantage of not having to succumb to “sponsored posts.” Instead, we can focus all of our resources on producing the best possible independent journalism. As for exclusive arrangements, The Times and other major news outlets receive much much more preferential access in general than tiny publications like ours. Why is it so troubling that another publication for once has access that The Times doesn’t?

    Thomas,
    Let me say again that the Quanta articles are well well done. But the facts are:
    1. Quanta got exclusive access to the Fields winners months before anyone else. That means IMU approached Simons or vice versa. If the Times got early, exclusive access to the Noblelists or MacArthur winners, other media outlets would protest and rightly so, I think.
    2. Simons produced the videos for IMU. They were shown as part of the program at the opening ceremonies and, tellingly, the copyright belongs to IMU, not Simons. It also appears that you accompanied the video makers for at least a couple of them.
    I’m not sure if you’re arguing that there was no quid quo pro between Simons doing the videos for IMU and IMU granting access to Quanta (there was quid quo pro) or that you’re saying it’s ok because you still had editorial independence.
    The Simon videos are part of the Quanta articles — they’re at the very top. If there’s a firewall between the two, it sure as heck wasn’t obvious to me or anyone else.

    More than anything else, I would have liked disclosure of the arrangement between Simons and IMU. Could you share?

    Ken, your liberal use of the word “facts” to convey your hunches and unfounded opinions is deeply troubling. Let me reiterate: There was both a firewall between the videos and the journalistically produced articles AND there was no quid pro quo between the two arrangements. The Simons Foundation agreed to help the IMU produce the videos. Separately, I asked the IMU if Quanta Magazine could produce articles about the winners, making it absolutely clear that their answer would have no effect on the video production. The granting of early access to Quanta was due to our perceived ability to cover these subjects accurately and with greater depth than most popular publications might attempt.

    Again, how many times has the NYT had early access to exclusive
    information? If you’ve ever had exclusive access to a NASA scoop, does that automatically mean that you’re doing PR for NASA and that they’re reviewing your articles before publication? This is not about protesting the access; if you’re unhappy
    with that, feel free to protest. Let me ask you, and this is an important question: As a journalist, are you comfortable leveling false, irresponsible claims about another media organization without issuing a word of correction or acknowledging that maybe you jumped to conclusions without first trying to get the facts?

    If Science decided to give the Times two weeks access to SciPak vs. one week for everyone else, because the Times does such a good job of science coverage, everyone else would complain. Ditto if the Times got the Nobel information early or if NASA gave us early an early exclusive look at next year’s budget. I think that’s fundamentally different from getting a scoop on a story that you’re reporting and no one else is. The complaints would be louder if there were any appearance of the Times doing something in exchange for that exclusive access.

    I don’t think I’ve leveled false, irresponsible claims. I think it was perfectly fair to ask if IMU reviewed the articles, and I’m happy to hear that it did not. I think it was perfectly fair to ask what was the arrangement between IMU and Simons since there was no plain English disclosure of that, and the Simons video and the Quanta article are intermingled on the same Web page. You’ve said there was no quid quo pro, and I’ll take your word for it, but it still strikes me as odd; maybe that’s just me. I’m glad you’ve taken the time to discuss, because I think it’s worth discussing in a public forum.

    I’ll add, I’m primarily annoyed at IMU.

    Thanks Kenneth. I did not know how they got the names of the winners so early. You did a great job of pulling together a story in a short time. I’m going to make an addendum to the post.

    It’s evident that the International Mathematical Union gave Quanta early and exclusive access to the Fields medalists. Quanta did a great job, but it straddled being both the public relations for IMU (the videos Quanta made were shown as part of the awards ceremony) and a competing news outlet.

    Ken, I’m glad you liked our coverage. I enjoyed your piece as well. While it’s true Quanta had earlier access to the Fields and Nevanlinna winners than other publications, it is patently false to say that our magazine “straddled being both the public relations for the IMU and a competing news outlet.” The videos were produced by the Simons Foundation (the credits at the end spell that out clearly, and with no reference to Quanta Magazine), not Quanta, which is an editorially independent division of the foundation that does not do public relations for either the foundation or the IMU. Perhaps the question to ask is what our beloved New York Times would have done with more than three weeks to talk to the winners. What did it do with the three weeks it had? That’s more than enough time to write two or three thousands words. With respect as a friend and former colleague, this is precisely why we have created Quanta Magazine, to provide in-depth coverage of the kinds of mathematical and basic science research that popular media outlets tend not to prioritize.

    We were specifically instructed not to contact other mathematicians for comment and not to contact Maryam Mizakhani. Whereas IMU clearly helped your writers get in touch with other mathematicians who already knew. So yeah, in addition to the extra time, it was not at all a level playing field. There was literally no possible way to do the basic reporting that underlay the Quanta articles.

    I understand why IMU did what it did. Given the access, Quanta did a very, very good job. I still think it’s reasonable for me to be upset if an organization cuts a deal to give special treatment to one media outlet (just like if Science or the Swedish Academy or NASA played favorites).

    And I really don’t think the absence of Quanta from the video credits counts as adequate disclosure. And I still think it’s worth discussing the arrangement. Would it be ok if the Times PR department did work for the Democratic Party in exchange for reporters getting exclusive access even if the reporters had complete independence? Clearly no. I think trying to argue that the two were independent wouldn’t fly past critics or the public editor.

    The IMU is different, but how different?

    Since when has there been a level playing field when it comes to reporting? Everyone is competing to write the best stories and to get there first. The Times and other major media outlets benefit the most from the unlevel playing field. I also question the idea that there was no way to do the basic reporting without divulging the winners to other mathematicians. Many of the sources we talked to did not know about the winners — we never mentioned the awards during the interviews, but were still able to get great quotes and insights about their work.

    Thanks again for the compliments about our coverage. I suppose it is reasonable to feel upset — what I find unreasonable is making up unfounded accusations about other journalists because you are upset.

    And, again, as I said below, there was no “exchange” or quid pro quo between the video production and the journalistic articles.

    Again, for the Nobel Prizes, for papers in Science, for NASA budget presentations, it’s an absolutely level playing field through the official channels, and if it weren’t, people would complain and do complain.

    I would submit that there is no way a New York Times reporter could call up a mathematician in the last week of July, a couple of weeks before the start of the International Congress of Mathematicians, to talk about the work of Maryam Mizakhani “just because.” The very smart mathematician would deduce she had won the Fields. That would be much easier to pull off in, say, April.

    Maybe I should rephrase the question: why the heck is the Simons Foundation doing PR work for the IMU? Because it makes Quanta look less editorially independent when you plop a PR video produced by your parent organization at the top of the article.

    I think there are some genuine issues for you and Simons to consider, and full disclosure (not tea leaf reading through credits) would be nice. Or you could decide it’s just sour grapes from me.

    Ken, I have a lot of work to do today (on a bit less sleep than expected), but allow me to poke one last hole in your flawed logic. You said that a bunch of journalists, including you, got early access to the winners under embargo. Did that include all journalists and media outlets? Where is this level playing field that you keep citing? By your logic, shouldn’t all the other journalists and news organizations that did not even have three weeks advance notice be just as upset with you as you are with us? Another way you could choose to look at this — isn’t it a good thing that Quanta was able to produce five 3,000 word articles about these important mathematicians when probably no other publication would have? Sour grapes? You said it, my friend, not me.

    This thread seems to be an echo chamber with just you and me, so I think we should wrap it up. We’ve both exhaustively expressed our opinions, and they’ll be forever preserved in the Tracker archives. I should have written, “it looks like quid quo pro,” not “it was quid quo pro,” but otherwise it was meant to be my opinion, and I apologize that it came across as an accusation against you. Once again, I have no complaint against the actual articles. Quanta is a great addition to the universe of science publications.

    Quanta Magazine is of course brilliant and consistent in its coverage of scientific achievements.. But I would like to point out here that The Hindu, in India, has given good coverage of the Fields Medal and other prizes awarded at the ICM this year, not just drawn from Press releases.

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