25 Are Here, and 1 Is Not

I’ve soul-searched and thesaurus-ed, but there’s no better word for this opening ceremony at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum than “pomp.” The audience rises. Doors are thrown open. And, with a blast of orchestral music, twenty-five living legends of mathematics and computer science shuffle down the aisle.

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© Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation / Kreutzer – 2017

Last year, when I asked a few of them about this grand entrance, they shrugged and laughed. Yes, they’re icons of academia, titans of scholarship. But also, they’re human beings, blinking in the megawatt spotlight, frowning as they scan for their reserved seats.

The HLF gathers these 25 laureates alongside 200 young researchers to talk about what comes between those two phases: A career spent solving problems. A lifetime of chasing your curiosities and your demons through those strange borderlands, from the cold realm of mathematical abstraction to the messy world of human reality, and back again.

In short: research.

The crowd rises for a moment of silence, to honor three laureates who died in the past year. Two are legends of computer science, both named Charles: Thacker and Bachman. The third picture breaks my heart.

It’s Maryam Mirzakhani.

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