Republished from old post, 27 July 2007
I am here because the charming tiny village of Sirince, hidden in hills a few miles from the glorious ruins of the fabulous ancient city of Ephesus, was chosen by my old friend and co-author Ali Nesin as a site for his Mathematical Village, and because I volunteered to spend my vacation teaching a course in his Summer School.
So far Mathematical Village has just two completed huts and functions as a summer camp for Turkish undergraduate students who are prepared to pay for the privilege of spending their summer taking advanced courses in mathematics. In particular, I teach a crash course on reflection groups. I teach in English; other courses are given in Turkish or various combinations of English and Turkish.
Crucially, I have two dozen bright, highly motivated students who are prepared to learn something challenging and non-trivial just for the sake of learning, without marks or diploma. It is an experience that I have not had for ages. With all my respect to my students in Manchester — hardworking and intelligent people as they are– not many of them would be prepared to spend their summer taking intensive advanced courses which do not count against the final mark and degree classification.
But why Turkey? Why should I have to go to Turkey to find bright motivated students?
Mathematics is a proselytising cult; it exists only because of a constant influx of young people with a specific inclination for studying and doing mathematics. A potential to become a professional mathematician is a rare gift; young promising students of mathematics are rare, they appear unpredictably, their gift is very fragile and can be easily destroyed by insensitive and ignorant teachers. Without a constant influx of fresh talent, mathematics will die. I have already had chance to say on many occasions that the natural cycle of reproduction of mathematics in Britain is broken, and, perhaps, is broken irreparably.
It is the dynamic of social change that releases hidden talent in masses of people. Cultures and nations which contributed more than usual share to science, art, technology were frequently cultures undergoing progressive social development, or nations building their first nation state. To a mathematician, it would suffice to remind about the sudden emergence of the astonishing Polish mathematics school in the newly independent Poland after World War I.
But currently, no other country in Europe can be compared with Turkey in the sheer pace of social dynamics. The country has a tremendous drive for education. One has to see a shoe polish boy on a street of Istanbul, a boy aged about 10, who, every minute when he has no business, takes a worn out textbook from under his belt and tries to do his homework. University mathematics students come mostly from a secure middle class background, but they exhibit the same thirst for education. It is a truth universally acknowledged across the Turkey that education is good, that education improves quality of life. I do not idealise Turkey — the abandoned olive groves around Sirince is only one of many marks of rural decline. The political and social situation in the country is full of tension. However, what matters is that the social mobility of the society is strong enough to carry talent up the social ladder. What matters is that Mathematical Village is held in greatest respect by the villagers of Sirince. A middle-aged waiter in the roadside restaurant where I now type this post told me that he would be happy to get a job of a janitor in the Mathematical Village, even for less pay — because he wants to do work that counts.
And now I turn to the simile in the title of my post. When you search for a mathematical talent, what should be your strategy? The answer is simple — the same as in prospecting for gold: look for mountain streams that cut layers of granite and release and carry grains of gold. Gold is heavy, and the stream has to be sufficiently strong to carry heavy grains. Everyone heard the story of Jason, Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. I was told once that the theme of a Golden Fleece is linked to the ancient method of capturing gold by placing a fleece in a stream; apparently, grains of gold got stuck in the wool. I heard that this method was common in Caucasus and on the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey.
This, I hope, explains why modern Turkey is one of the best places in the world if you are prospecting for mathematical talent. And, of course, Ali Nesin is THE expert in the geology of mathematical gold. It is worth mentioning that he edits a Turkish mathematical journal Matematik Dünyası for schoolchildren, one of the few journals of that kind in the world which have sufficient circulation to make commercial profit. I cannot read Turkish, but I can decipher mathematical formulae and can attest with full confidence that his journal is of highest mathematical quality. Britain has population comparable with that of Turkey, but amagazine like Matematik Dünyası is commercially unfeasible in Britain — and this is the principal diference between the mathematics education cultures of the two countries.
A few more words about Mathematical Village are due. As I have already mentioned, it currently consists of a couple of permanent buildings, a lecture shed and a dormitory — Iyou will find some photographs in my later post — and a few portacabins, soon to be demolished. Turkish baths are in the process of intensive construction. By next summer this patch of abandoned farmland will have seven buildings and a small swimming pool. All construction is done strictly by traditional methods – wood, stone, and mud (and some marble for the interior of Turkish baths). AliNesin plans to plant some fast growing trees for shade and rejuvenate the exhausted olive trees. The Mathematical Village will provide excellent conference facilities for small conferences and workshops, up to 40 or 50 people. The village of Siringeprovides a range of charming boutique hotels (their existence there is a separate story, see, for example, an article in NYT) and inexpensive restaurants with simple but excellent food (if you come to Sirince, I would suggest you to try some gozleme; I specifically recommend minced meat gozleme in Ozlem, an unpretentious eatery a couple of houses away from the mosque). The last but not least, Sirince is famous for its fruit wines, surprisingly subtle and refined. Of all mathematics centers that I have seen around the world (and I visited quite a few – immediately after Sirince I will go to Oberwolfach on my tenth, perhaps, visit there), Mathematical Village at Sirince promises to be the most charming, friendly and conducive for research.