Accessibility links

Czech Republic: World's Leading Math Minds Gather In Prague

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 12 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Every year, the world's leading mathematical theoreticians gather for a week to discuss their latest research and push the boundaries of man's scientific knowledge a little further.

The event is called the Logic Colloquium and is organized by the U.S.-based Association for Symbolic Logic. And this year, for the first time, it is taking place in Prague. By bringing the great minds of East and West together, the Czech capital once again aims to regain its historic role as the crossroads of Europe.

At the very least, it is a sign that the division of Europe is further receding into the past and it also recalls an earlier age, when alchemists and philosophers from all over the world would gather at the Prague court of the Renaissance Emperor Rudolf.

So, what happens when 250 mathematicians from 32 countries get together in one lecture hall? They talk about 'Ramsey's theorem' and 'inversism,' 'd-fields' and the 'Pfaffian closure.' To the layman, it can all seem rather abstract and largely indecipherable.

But, says Moscow scientist Aleksandr Razborov, logic and mathematical theory are increasingly finding new, practical applications, especially in the field of computers:

"Logic probably sounds like something very theoretical, which doesn't have anything to do with practical life. But it's not quite true, because for example, I would identify myself not only as a logician, but also as a computer scientist. And I think that what has happened over the last 10-15 years, is that the most theoretical concepts of logic are widely applied in computer science and even more practical areas. "

Razborov, a fellow at the Russian Academy of Science's Steklov Research Institute, says the unique value of the Logic Colloquium, is that it allows scientists and mathematicians to share ideas, and thus create a unique synergy:

"At this conference, we really have a very broad mixture of people, from the most theoretical work, to people doing computer science and even some programming...and it is really important and nice to bring this whole crowd together because that's how science works. You bring different people together in one place. They talk and work with each other and then something really great comes out of it."

Razborov is cautiously optimistic about the future of scientific research in Russia, saying the "brain drain" following the collapse of Communism, when many leading minds left for better-paid jobs in the West, has now largely ceased. And the government, he says, is developing new grant programs to fund scientific research.

But even in the United States, say conference organizers, obtaining funding for pure science can also be a struggle. Samuel Buss, a mathematics professor at the University of California at San Diego, who co-organized this year's Logic Colloquium, acknowledges that practical applications from current mathematical research may not be derived for 10-15 years. This makes companies reluctant to fund pure research, which he says requires government support:

"I think it almost has to be up to government, because businesses now try to run very lean and keep costs down. And these kinds of things, where the payoff is very distant and it's not clear that it would help the business itself - it may help another business, more than the business that makes the first investment - makes it very hard for business to invest in long-term research."

But, says, Buss, the payoff will always be there, even if it is delayed. One of this year's topics at the conference, for example, is quantum mathematical computation. At this stage, the research remains highly theoretical, but it could one day translate into faster computer programs and better links between computer networks.

Petr Hajek, a leading Czech logician and chairman of this year's meeting, says the important thing is to keep the doors between East and West open. Even during the Cold War, the Association for Symbolic Logic sponsored scientists from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, so that they could attend the annual conferences and share their research with their Western colleagues:

"I always stress that during the division of Europe into two blocs, it was very important that logicians in the ASL and Western Europe took care to invite as many people from Eastern Europe as possible, to give talks...this was very important for keeping contacts."

Now that the political barriers have been removed, advanced research has the opportunity to truly soar to new heights. At least, that should be the logical outcome.