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Leelavati Prize Talk

Notes for the prize speech delivered August 8, 2018, at ICM (International Congress of Mathematics), on the awarding of the Leelavati Prize to Ali Nesin.

The Mathematics Village was an act of improvisation.
Ali and I talked and dreamt about it for years, but the actual decision to go ahead was taken almost by accident.
We had no plan, no budget, and no permission. A rough idea was sketched on a few restaurant napkins. But even that was never applied in practice, because the ground turned out to be somewhat different than what we thought, and our ideas evolved in any case.
An amazing amount of discussion and debate went into every decision. Every morning a bunch of fresh decisions were made, then debated with fierce sophistication. Practical and aesthetic considerations were thrown around like deadly missiles.
No architectural plan ever incorporates so much thought, so much creativity, none ever takes so many factors into consideration.
There was no budget. We never knew how much we had to spend, so we never knew how many more buildings we could afford to build. We periodically made appeals to the public. We received thousands of small donations, then increasingly larger ones. In the month that we decided we needed a large library with auditorium, one of the top popular singers of Turkey [Sezen Aksu] visited the village, fell in love with it, and threw in a benefit concert whose proceeds covered the library and some more.
The improvisation shows. So does the intellectual effort and the aesthetic sensibility, the generosity of spirit, the mental seriousness that went into the village. People of all ages and backgrounds instantly fall in love with the MV. They feel immense joy the moment they arrive, an exhilaration, a feeling of coming home. It is a magical home. It is somewhere they could live and call it theirs. It is not intimidating. It is not “institutional”. It is not straining to demostrate power and wealth, as so many “modern” academic institutions do, and as for example this magnificent convention center we are in now obviously does. Yet it is nor saccharine; it is not a theme park or a Disneyland or a film set. There is an immense amount of free and educated and playful thought that has gone into it, and it is immediately sensed in every detail.
And that is an important lesson that we derived from our experience with MV. For education to succeed, it is not enough to teach well. You must have the student identify with her environment. Fall in love with it. Feel exhilarated by it. That opens the mind and changes mental attitudes like nothing else.
It was an act of freedom, and by the same token it was an act of civil disobedience.
What we tried to create did not fit into any legal or institutional framework. We tried to explain our project to the local authorities, then the regional authorities, then the national authorities. It was beyond what they could comprehend. I wasn’t done before. It didn’t fit the definitions of the regulators. It required imagination, and, as you probably know, imagination to a bureaucrat is like wings to a whate. It doesn’t rise.
They watched us with amazement. Then they tried to block us. The construction was stopped, the site was sealed. We went on. They sent in troops. We persisted. Our workmen were arrested. We hired other workmen. They put up a police checkpoint on the road to our village to prevent the workmen from coming in. We responded by starting work at a different time each day. We set up hilltop sentries to warn us when the soldiers were coming. Eventually they slackened. We invited the local police chiefs and gendarmerie commander to our opening ceremony
The village still has no status. It has become probably the most successful educational enterprise in the whole country, a world-class phenomenon, admired by everyone at every end of the political and social spectrum. It may even be the only institution so universally admired now in a country riven by political strife. Recently the government has asked us to propose some sort of regulatory framework that would define and regularize the MV. They are effectively asking us to define this new type of institution so others could emulate it an set up similar things. One feels almost like the schools of Bologna or Paris in the Middle Ages, who stumbled into the idea of a University almost by accident.
That of course puts us into a dilemma. What makes MV unique is the improvisation, the freedom, the civil disobedience. How can you institutionalize freedom? How can you set a legal framework for civil disobedience? How can you formalize improvisation?


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