At 8.30AM on the first day of the 2018 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM), crowds were already pouring into into the opening talk. The event, which takes place very four years, is one of the largest and most important for the global mathematics community. Its 2018 edition, against the backdrop of Rio de Janeiro’s beaches and mountains, is the first time it has ever taken place in the southern hemisphere since its first incarnation in the 1890s.
Mathematicians from all over the world file steadily into arena, where green-and-yellow lights spin across groups of colleagues and friends shaking hands and taking selfies. Those who have already taken their seats stare at the screen in anticipation, where close-ups of brightly colours textures complement the soundtrack of bird and insect noises echoing across the dimly-lit space.
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Shortly after 9AM, indigenous Brazilians appear near the stage in traditional dress. Along with Afrobrazilian singer Mariene de Castro, the two indigenous groups – the Kuikuros and the Karajas – perform for open-mouthed onlookers. Introducing the ceremony, Paul Heritage emphasized that while these groups may seem unrelated to mathematics, they share the same reverence for geometry, shape and pattern as the academic discipline.
The audience welcomed key figures from the IMC, International Mathematics Union (IMU) and BNDES to the stage, as well as Brazil’s Minister for Education Rossieli Soares da Silva. “It is a great pleasure to be here today in the name of Brazil and Brazilian mathematics and science,” said Soares. He said that he also hoped that the hundreds of Brazilian Math Olympiad gold medallists, who sat together and took up an entire block of the seating, would be inspired to continue by the mathematicians they learned about and met at the 2018 ICM.
Announcing the winners on stage, Shigefumi Mori, the IMU’s president reminisced about past ICMs, which have taken place everywhere from Beijing to Berlin. “I was so tense when I won the Fields Medal in 1990 that I couldn’t really enjoy the experience. That is one of my few regrets. And so, I invite this year’s winners to enjoy themselves,” he said.
The audience exploded into enthusiastic applause as the winners were announced for the prestigious awards, including the Fields, Chern and Gauss awards. Short films, introducing the mathematicians’ lives and the areas that fascinate them were shown, with the crowds once again breaking into applause as the winners took to the stage and received their medals.
The ICM’s opening ceremony also showcased two further performances, which audience members, who excitedly filmed on their phones and GoPros. Bringing together elements of Brazil’s diverse culture in the form of maracatu, passinho and samba, speakers praised Brazil’s connection to music, dance and art – which, they said firmly, all demonstrate the diverse ways in which mathematics is integrated into our world.