Bertrand Russell Prize of the AMS

(The following interview originally appeared in the Line  about the Bertrand Russell Prize of the AMS)

Professor Thomas C. Hales of the University of Pittsburgh has established the Bertrand Russell Prize of the AMS. The prize looks beyond the confines of the profession to research or service contributions of mathematicians or related professionals that promote good in the world. Prof Hales talked about his inspiration for the prize.

1. What about Bertrand Russell inspired you to endow a prize in his name?

Russell wrote that in his youth, “mathematics was my chief interest and, and my chief source of happiness.” Yet, his legacy extends far beyond mathematics. On the whole, Russell’s writings promote rational analysis in pursuit of humanitarian ends. The prize has related aims.

2. If you were to award a prize to Bertrand Russell, which of his achievements would you recognize?

I would award Russell a prize for his efforts during the Cold War to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear catastrophe.

The Russell-Einstein manifesto, which was published in 1955, led to the founding of the Pugwash conference, an organization devoted to the reduction of nuclear weapons and to the social responsibility of scientists.

In 1995, the Nobel Peace Prize was shared by Joseph Rotblat (one of the 11 signatories of the Russell-Einstein manifesto) and the Pugwash conference for their work.

3. In what ways have your mathematics intersected those of Russell’s?

Bertrand Russell is the father of type theory.  Historically, there were two resolutions of Russell’s paradox: axiomatic set theory and the theory of types. There is a direct chain of influence from Russell’s type theory, to Alonzo Church’s simply-typed lambda calculus, to Dana Scott’s logic of computable functions (LCF), to higher-order logic (HOL). The formal proof of theorems in HOL is one of my primary research interests.

4. What is an example from the past of a person, a mathematical achievement or application you feel might warrant this prize?

I will pick an old example that has not lost its relevance.

Norbert Wiener, the creator of cybernetics and the mathematical theory of communication (with Shannon), campaigned for the ethical use of these technologies. With remarkable prescience, Norbert Wiener educated the public about the social disruptions (such as widespread unemployment) that would result from automation, unless mitigated through sound public policy.

More about the Prize

Prize Description:  This prize looks beyond the confines of our profession to research or service contributions of mathematicians or related professionals to promoting good in the world.  It recognizes the various ways that mathematics furthers fundamental human values.

Prize Details:  The $5,000 prize will be awarded every three years.

About this Prize:  The mission of the AMS includes

  1. promoting the uses of mathematical research,
  2. advancing the status of the profession of mathematics, and
  3. fostering an awareness and appreciation of mathematics and its connections to other disciplines and everyday life.

This prize, proposed and funded by Thomas Hales, is designed to promote these goals.  Mathematical contributions that further world health, our understanding of climate change, digital privacy, or education in developing countries, are some examples of the type of work that might be considered for the prize.

Nominate a Candidate



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