The Essence of the HLF, in One Story

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

At most scientific conferences, you find a cross-section of ages: elder statesmen, rising stars, mid-career workhorses, maturing postdocs, and fresh-faced PhD candidates. The HLF brings together the two extremes: the most legendary of the legends, and the most bright-eyed of the youngsters.

What do such disparate groups have to talk about?

A lot, it turns out.


During the opening ceremony, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon—the president of the European Research Council—told a story from his own days as a young mathematician.

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21 Essential Quotes from Sir Michael Atiyah

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The joke among bloggers over breakfast: What award hasn’t Atiyah won?

(My suggestion: the gold glove? But maybe he’s won that, too.)

A Fields Medalist and Abel Prize recipient, he is a living legend: his index theorem (developed with Singer) revolutionized both mathematics and quantum physics.

In a sweeping talk on Monday morning, he leapt so nimbly from the upper echelons of abstraction to the gritty details of reality that you began to realize that they are one and the same. The purity of mathematics, the practicality of computer science—they’re interwoven.

Here are 21 quotes that capture the experience of hearing this knighted mathematician, a thinker of extraordinary depth and curiosity.


First, he introduced himself as our tour guide through the last century of theory in mathematics and computer science:

  1. I’m as new as the hall.
    on lecturing in the so-called New University Building, built in 1929—the same year as Atiyah’s birth


  1. I’m going to be your tour guide of the last century. But don’t believe everything the tour guide says. They exaggerate.
    a self-effacing introduction to his far-ranging talk

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The Universal Language (in Translation)

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

A combinatorist working in India, Manjil Saikia is soft-spoken and super-knowledgeable: we chatted about Isaac Asimov and the history of the Fields Medal before getting into his passion project, which (like mine!) is a blog.

It’s called Gonit Sora.

That’s Assamese for “Gateway to Math.”


As a monolingual American, it’s easy to forget just how easy I have it. My native tongue happens to be the global language. Case in point: I blundered into Germany yesterday not speaking a word of German. No problem! For me, provincialism carries no penalty.

But for Manjil, growing up in northeast India, he had to fight for access to knowledge in a world that catered far better to folks like me. When the internet arrived in his home at age 18, it was a revelation—but even online, he had to leap linguistic hurdles. There were almost no sources on math and science in his native Assamese.

It was English or bust.

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On a Single Piece of Paper, Explain Your Research Area

a dispatch from the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum

One of the hardest things about research in technical fields: Explaining what the heck it is that you do.

The natural sciences have it easy: they study physical, tangible things. Perhaps those things are weird and exotic (bosons, mRNA, kangaroos, etc.) but hey, at least they’re things.

Mathematicians and computer scientists face a taller order. They study concepts, processes, algorithms. The “things” they research aren’t really things at all: they’re creations of rigorous human thought, abstract structures of logical language.

Not so easy to explain.

So as they sipped on coffee and Coke, waiting for the HLF opening ceremony to begin, I ambushed seven young researchers and goaded them into explaining their work to me. Characterizing your specific research can be simply too hard, so I gave them a slightly broader invitation: On a single piece of paper, illustrate what your research area is about.

Here is what they (very gamely!) contributed:

From Tetiana Klychmuk, studying linear algebra in Ukraine:


Here’s some poetic algebra for you: each vector space is like a flourishing leaf, and linear maps are the rough bark that runs between them. As a researcher, Tetiana wants to understand the whole tree.

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In a Quaint German Town, Mathematicians Converge

You’d like Heidelberg.

I mean, maybe you wouldn’t. Do woodland landscapes enrage you? Are you repulsed by chocolatiers and scenic castles? Do you shudder at the thought of nibbling on a handmade sphere of marzipan and nougat cream?

If so, Heidelberg is not for you.


As for me, it’s pretty heavenly.

I’m here as an invited blogger to cover the fourth annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum. Huge thanks to the HLF team for inviting me—and to the year 2016 for making “invited blogger” my bizarre unearned reality.

The HLF is a meeting of minds. Those minds include:

  • 22 Laureates from the highest echelons mathematics and computer science, ranging from the “father of the internet” (Vincent Cerf) to the man who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem (Sir Andrew Wiles)


  • 200 Young Researchers, whose work spans every area of math and computer science, and who hail from 56 countries including Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Sudan, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Slovakia, Singapore, South Africa, Serbia, and Saint Kitts & Nevis—and that’s just the S’s.


I’m here to watch, to listen—and to eat handmade spheres of marzipan and nougat cream.

The conference’s goal is a simple one: to build community. Today’s grand masters will share meals, conversations, and offhand wisdom with tomorrow’s research leaders.

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