The following article has appeared in
Newsletter of the European Mathematical Society, March 2000,
as an editorial in connection with the World Mathematical Year 2000.

Curriculum Vitae



WMY 2000
Editorial for EMS-Newsletter



by Vagn Lundsgaard Hansen

When asked what the World Mathematical Year 2000 is about, I answer that it is to make visible to the general public that mathematics bridges gaps in culture, science and technology. For technology this is true even in the very literal sense. For culture and science it is more profound. How this idea dawned upon me, I am about to tell you.

Getting overwhelmed
During holidays in London last summer, I first visited the Science Museum and the next day the British Museum. As many other visitors, I was thoroughly impressed. It is, indeed, fantastic, what homo sapiens has created throughout history. Nevertheless, my reflections on the impressions followed an unexpected road.

Suddenly during the visit to the Science Museum, I had a feeling of being completely overwhelmed. Are there really more to be invented? Are the achievements in the natural sciences and technology in the last millenium, and particularly in the last few centuries, so extraordinarily impressive that it can be demoralizing for the young and ambitious who think about their own future careers? What are there to be done? What can they do to make a difference? Somehow I felt that here might be one of the reasons for the decline in enrolment at universities in the natural and the technological sciences. I got, admittedly, slightly depressed. But wait, there is hope and encouragement to be found.

Slowly recovering
Where is the red thread connecting all the things in the Science Museum? Where are the great unifying principles? Where is the common language? Suddenly it came to me in a Platonian flash: The principles of mathematics are behind every single construction in technology. My adrenalin got a kick. I started talking and talking to my very tolerant and patient wife about this wonderful power of mathematics: ``Look at these steam engines, look at these marvelous clocks. And do you think that man had ever come to the moon without mathematics?"

Here we go
We went all the way from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle on the mathematical principles behind the universe, over the work of the old Greek mathematicians and philosophers, to Gallilei, who died in 1642, the year of the birth of Newton, then to Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr (excuse me for being patriotic)... All the major breakthroughs in physics are written in the language of mathematics. And what about astronomy, chemistry and, in more recent times, biology and geology. I was thrilled and thought proudly by myself: Mathematics stretches back in time to the dawn of civilization, its impact is really felt in modern society, and mathematics will continue to be vital in the future. The only thing that bothered me was that I found this declaration stated nowhere in the Science Museum. Only a tiny little room with mathematics on display - so it appeared at first sight. But with hindsight I found the museum filled with realizations of mathematical ideas.

Bring out the message
The purpose of the World Mathematical Year is to bring the power of mathematics to the attention of the general public, pupils in schools, students at the universities, teachers at all levels, politicians. My goodness, we have a much better case than we think. They cannot do without mathematics. The sad thing is that they do not know about it. We must tell them in every continent of the world that mathematics is a language common to all nations and that its values are eternal and universal.

Greek vases
The next day we visited the British Museum. Same experience. Mathematics behind many things in art, paintings, sculptures, pottery, ornamentations, and marvellous mathematical ideas exploited in the construction of clocks and instruments from the natural sciences. Despite this, only one small cabinet devoted to mathematics. But also in the British Museum we found mathematics to provide major links throughout the various exhibitions. Again a very happy day on the beaches of the mathematical ocean.

A slight disappointment was that the exhibition of Greek vases was closed on the day of our visit. And my main purpose in this particular visit to the British Museum was to see the Greek vases, not for the reasons you might imagine. Not at all! I wanted to see the planar reflection symmetry realized by `umklappung' (a spatial 180 degree rotation) in the famous motive of Ajax and Achilleus at the board game.

The tour goes to Spain
This summer the tour goes to Spain and first to Granada, where a satellite conference to the Third European Congress of Mathematics takes place 3-7 July. The conference in Granada is one of the main projects which the EMS-committee of the WMY 2000 has worked for. We are extremely grateful to the people in Granada who have realized the project of bringing Europeans and Arabs together in the old city with the famous Alhambra, castle of the Moorish kings. A main part of the conference will discuss the historical perspectives of contributions of both cultures to the present mathematical knowledge. A central role is played by the fascinating ornamentations in Alhambra, in which all the 17 planar crystallographic groups are represented. For a long time, I have been eager to see these motifs which form such a beautiful bridge between Arab and European cultures.

Mathematical posters
The other main project of the EMS-committee of the WMY 2000 is the campaign for suitable posters to be displayed in subways and other public places. As one way of stimulating the creation of good ideas for posters, the EMS arranged a poster competition in the Spring of 1999, the result of which was announced in the Newsletter, December 1999. The designers of posters have given permission to include their proposals in a web-gallery. The gallery is still under construction but has recently been made public. It can be found at the web-address Comments and suggestions for the web-gallery are wellcome. In particular, the gallery has a supplementary section, where suitable ideas for posters independent of the competition can be included.

Working hard
The main work in connection with the World Mathematical Year has by necessity to be done by all the local committees set up in many countries to organize mathematical events. It is, indeed, hard work to catch the interest of the public media, newspapers and TV, and it is very difficult to make the local postal services issue special stamps with a mathematical content. The various mathematical societies and teachers associations will organize competitions and lecture series, which take many thoughts to be properly prepared. The reward is that the sum of all these activities will be to the benefit of mathematics all over the world.

It is fortunate that there is so much to tell about mathematics. For it is, indeed, true that mathematics bridges gaps in culture, science and technology. May I wish for all of you a very exciting World Mathematical Year 2000.