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Mathematicians establish new center in Ukraine

17 February 2023

The 13 founders, including a Fields Medalist, envision strengthening ties with the international math community. The war has added urgency to their mission.

Inauguration ceremony of the International Centre for Mathematics.
A hybrid event on 12 January marked the launch of the International Centre for Mathematics in Ukraine. Hosted by the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques outside Paris, the event was attended by 55 mathematicians, policymakers, and philanthropists. Credit: IHES/Fanny Dufour

For Masha Vlasenko, the idea to establish a mathematics center in Ukraine goes back more than 15 years, to when she was a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany. Another Ukrainian, Maryna Viazovska, was also there working on her PhD. The institute’s founding director, Friedrich Hirzebruch, told them how after visiting the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, he was inspired to start something similar in Germany.

“The story stayed in our hearts, and now we are making a similar thing together,” says Vlasenko, a number theorist on the faculty of the Institute of Mathematics of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Spurred into action by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Vlasenko, Viazovska, and 11 other Ukrainian mathematicians make up the global coordination committee for the new International Centre for Mathematics in Ukraine.

On 12 January they held an inauguration ceremony online and at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES) outside Paris. Since last summer, Vlasenko has traveled several times from Poland to Ukraine to scout for a brick-and-mortar location for the new center. She and her colleagues are seeking a site in one of the country’s major cities—Kyiv, Lviv, or Kharkiv.

The plan is to start with months-long programs that focus on selected topics in mathematical sciences. The courses will consist of lectures and seminars, plus a couple of workshops open to people not attending the whole time. The programs will be intended for both students and experts from Ukraine and abroad. In the future, says Vlasenko, “we’d like to also have long-term and permanent positions for mathematicians.”

Successful math centers around the world take two forms: Some, like IHES and the IAS, have a stable of permanent positions and many long-term visitors. Others, like the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, and the Mittag-Leffler Institute near Stockholm, host programs on selected topics over several months. “We will use these standard, proven successful models,” says Andrey Gogolev, a coordination committee member based at the Ohio State University whose expertise is in dynamical systems.

One goal of the new center is to address a long-standing need to integrate Ukrainian mathematics into the international community, says Iryna Yehorchenko, a mathematical physicist and coordination committee member working in Kyiv at the Institute of Mathematics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. “It’s important to give young people the possibility to be in touch with top-level mathematicians from all over the world.”

Despite strong education in the field and many internationally recognized practitioners, the mathematics community in Ukraine has been largely isolated. “The only way to attend international conferences is to get a grant from the organizing committee, which is rare, or to pay with personal money,” says Yehorchenko. Access to math publications comes mostly through foreign libraries or articles sent by friends from outside the country. “Our departments are stocked with gifts from colleagues in other countries and old Soviet books,” she adds. Since the onset of the war nearly a year ago, some publishers have offered free online access to peer-reviewed literature.

Masha Vlasenko.
Masha Vlasenko is part of a team that in just a few months put together plans to launch the International Centre for Mathematics in Ukraine. Credit: Piotr Achinger

Yehorchenko says that in Ukraine, mathematicians are paid an order of magnitude less than jobs in tech sectors. She hopes the center will make doing math—and staying in the country to do it—more appealing for younger generations. With its guests and activities, the center will also help in rebuilding Ukraine when the war ends, she and other organizers say. It will be an independent, nongovernmental organization, which, Vlasenko explains, will provide the flexibility to “achieve maximum impact on the mathematical community.”

The war thrust Ukraine into the global spotlight. But rather than being a deterrent to starting something new, Yehorchenko says, “it adds urgency. We cannot postpone.” After Russia invaded last year, Vlasenko engaged in humanitarian aid for Ukrainians, mostly fundraising for medics. But she felt she could have the most impact by focusing on math.

Math and Ukraine also garnered attention last year when Viazovska, chair of number theory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, received the Fields Medal, mathematics’ highest honor. “The attention from the Fields Medal could be an opportunity to have more people participate in the center and to gain more international support for it,” Vlasenko says. “Before the war, we would have sought support from local businesses. Now we are fundraising abroad.”

The center is getting started with a founding pledge to match donations up to €1 million (about $1 million) from XTX Markets, an international algorithmic trading firm headquartered in the UK. About €2 million would be enough to run programs for the first two years, Vlasenko says. The amount of funding needed for infrastructure will become clear when a headquarters has been selected, she adds.

Because of the war—including the difficulties of traveling into Ukraine and the fact that Ukrainian men age 60 and younger are not permitted to exit the country—initial events will have twin locations, with the Ukrainian site and partner institutions holding in-person gatherings, and will have online access. The coordination committee is planning the first such event for 7–11 August. It will be jointly hosted by the Kyiv School of Economics and the Banach Center at Warsaw’s Institute of Mathematics. At press time, the topic had not yet been selected.

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