Tuesday, June 04, 2019

IMU's non-controversial changing the name of the Nevanlinna Prize

(I want to thank Alexander Soifer for supplying me with some of the documents I point to in this post. We should all thank him for getting the ball rolling on changing the name of the Nevanlinna Prize.)

The Nevanlinna Prize was essentially a Fields Medal for Theoretical Computer Science.  I do not know why it is a Prize instead of a Medal.

It has been renamed The Abacus Medal. If you want to know why the IMU (International Mathematics Union) thinks the new name is good but do not care even a little about why the original name was bad then see this article: here.

So why is The Nevanlinna Prize a bad name? In brief, Rolf Nevanlinna was an enthusiastic Nazi sympathizer. How enthused? He served as the chair of the Finish SS recruitment committee.

That would seem like enough to get the name changed. In fact, it makes one wonder why the prize originally had the name.

1) Why the change now?  It began when Alexander Soifer came across this information about Nevanlinna while working on his book

The Scholar and the State: In Search of Van der Waerdan (see here to buy it, see here for a book review column that includes my review of it).

He then wrote a letter to the IMU which sponsors the Nevanlinna Prize. The letter is here. Note that Alexander offered to pay for the prize ($15,000 every four years) if that will help get the name changed.

After a response that lamely said (I paraphrase): Gee, we didn't know. Oh well. Alex wrote another letter which is here.

The story has a happy ending: the name was changed.  (No, Alexander is not paying for the award.)

2) For a full summary of why the award was originally named Nevanlinna  and why it was changed see the article, Yes We Can,  by Alexander Soifer, in an issue of the journal Mathematical Competitions, see here.

3) When is change possible?

 Assume Y did X and X is awful (e.g., I assume for most of my readers believing and spreading Nazi propaganda). Assume there is a Y-prize. What does it take to have the name changed?

a) You need someone pushing hard for it. Kudos to Alexander Soifer who started this.

b) There is no really good reason to use that name in the first place. 

What was Nevanlinna's contribution to mathematical aspects of computer science? The IMU (International Mathematics Union) internet page answers:

The prize was named in honors of Rolf Nevanlinna ... who in the 1950's had taken the initiative to the computer organization at Finnish Universities. 

That's all. If there was a Gauss Prize (actually there IS a Gauss Prize) and we later found out that Gauss was X, I doubt we would change the name of the award. Gauss's name is on it since he is a great mathematician. 

c) The person on the award is not the one giving the money. If we found out that Nobel was an X,  I doubt the name would change since he is paid for it. 

d) If the award name is well known then it might not change. Nobel is a good example. I think the Nevanlinna prize is mostly unknown to the public. The Field's medal is better known, though still not that well known. The general public became briefly aware of the Field's medal twice: when it was mentioned in the movie Good Will Hunting, and when Perelman turned it down. Fame is fleeting for both prizes and people.

e) Organizations don't like to change things. Hence X would need to be particularly bad to warrant a name change. 


1) Why The Abacus Medal? Perhaps they are worried that if they name it after someone and that someone turns out to be an X they'll have to change it again. I find the explanation given here to be unsatisfying. I find the fact that they make NO MENTION of why they are no longer naming it The Nevanlinna prize appalling and insulting.

2) Lets turn to people who get the awards. If someone solved two Millennium problems and clearly deserved a Field's Medal, but was an X, should they be denied the prize on that basis. I would tend to think no (that is, they should get the prize) but it does trouble me. What would happen?  I honestly don't know.  

3) X will change over time.


  1. Why not strip the names of all slave owners off things regardless of whether the things for which they got the naming had anything to do with it?

  2. You raise a good question- where to draw the line.
    Thought experiment
    1) If there was an Adolf Hitler award for military Leadership, and if
    he was a good military leader (I do not know if he was) so the name
    made sense, Would you want to change the name. I assume yes (though if you would not, let me know, and this thought experiement fails)

    2) If Y was the worlds greatest Z and there was an award for great Z's
    named after Y, BUT we then find out that Y was a soldier for Germany in WW II, then I assume you would NOT want to change the name.

    The question then arises- where do you draw the line (hmm- maybe do a binary search). Or do you NOT change the Hitler award because of your fear of a slippery slope -- today we penalize Nazi's, tommorow we penalize people FILL IT IN. I respect the slippery-slope argument thogh I disagree with it since you need to draw the line somewhere. And YES I do see that this may be hard.

    In the case of Rolf N i do not find it to be hard. He was an enthusasict and unrepentent Nazi.

    Do you have a line and he's on the okay side of it? Or do you think there should be no such line?

    I am taking your comment seriously and trying to engage you in a serious discussion, so please respond.

    1. 1) probably change though the scenario is very weird so hard to say for sure since I do not like the idea of tearing down Confederate war memorials and some statues of people from the Confederacy
      2) would at least strongly resist a PC push to change it

      To being unrepentant, James Madison owned slaves and did not free them in his will and came up with the 3/5ths of a person idea. Andrew Jackson owned slaves and didn't free them in his will, Andrew Johnson owned slaves and got Lincoln to include his state as being not under the PR gambit that was the Emancipation Proclamation. No idea how to count the pile of contradictions of Thomas Jefferson.

  3. Even the case of Rolf Nevanlinna is not as clear-cut as it may appear from linking him to SS. There is a biography of Olli Lehto, "Korkeat maailmat. Rolf Nevanlinnan elämä" [High Worlds. The life of Rolf Nevanlinna] (in Finnish). Otava. 317 pages, 2001. There exists a German translation "Erhabene Welten – das Leben Rolf Nevanlinnas. Birkhäuser, Vita Mathematica 2008" but no English version. From what is cited in wikipedia we get more detailed information, also regarding his work on the Volunteer Battalion to the Waffen-SS. He did that in a sense of duty as a Finnish patriot. He was not concerned with subscribing new members but with the repatriation of already committed troops which he successfully accomplished. Also note that Finland was at war (Winter War 1939-1940 and Continuation War 1941-1944) with the Soviet Union after it was attacked by Stalin's troops in 1939. Agreed that there are more apt mathematicians to lend their name to a TCS-prize that was initially donated by the Finns. But that they chose a national hero and a great mathematician, Nevanlinna, was not completely wrong, also on moral grounds.

  4. Alexander Soifer12:08 PM, June 06, 2019

    "Anonymous" means afraid of responsibility for own words. In my opinion, professional ethics is a part of the profession. Rolf Nevanlinna was a fine analyst, but is it enough for etching his profile on our medals? Besides, as you agree, he had nothing to do with TCS.
    Now let me quote the March 25, 1941 letter from Nevanlinna to Helmut Hasse. Enjoy the sing-along duet of the two Nazi supporters:

    "You know, dear Herr Hasse, your remarks about the hypocritical and
    stupid “moral indignation of Western politicians, who try to hide their hate against Germany under the mantle of nice phrases,” correspond completely to what we feel here and say to ourselves daily. You know those deeply rooted sympathies which connect us Finns with Germany, these bonds are today stronger than ever now that the easily understandable irritation caused by our difficult time a year ago has died down . . .
    It is absolutely clear to us that only a strong and powerful Germany,
    the heart of Europe, is capable of forming the fate of European
    community in the way, which the interest of all European nations of
    culture demands. Personally, I am firmly convinced thereof and I
    believe to see a total justification of this conviction in European
    history, namely that Germany is today summoned not only to save
    European culture, which already happened in 1933, but to lead it to an
    undreamt-of blooming. The world-historic significance of the present
    hour is immense."

    1. Thanks Prof. Soifer for taking part in this discussion. The letter you cite is pretty much self-explaining your point. I always find it strange and deplorable to see how easily otherwise highly cultured individuals like Hasse and Nevanlinna fell for the Nazi propaganda and adopted its savage jargon, even in personal letters.

  5. "Anonymous" allows concentrating on the content, even if it is controversial, without being distracted by a name. After checking out Olli Lehto's biography it is really hard to defend Nevanlinna's political views in 1933-1945 and their moral obligation. The only point to be made in his favor is to try to understand them from their historical and biographical context (and not only from hindsight of today). For this I recommend Lehto's study. It is out of the question that Nevanlinna is a controversial figure, but in some sense he is also typical for the 20th century. However, admittedly, with too much ballast from the past to stand for the bright future of computing that now the IMU Abacus Medal should convey.

  6. To be honest I'd always wondered why the prize was still named after Nevanlinna. Aside from his lack of connection to computer science, his Nazi sympathies were well known even before Soifer's campaign, though his role in recruitment for the Finnish Waffen SS was news to me.

    So there's one of my main questions about the prize answered(or at least resolved). The second remains. The IMU's website(which still refers to the Nevanlinna Prize) says that it is awarded "for outstanding contributions in Mathematical Aspects of Information Sciences including:"

    1)All mathematical aspects of computer science, including complexity theory, logic of programming languages, analysis of algorithms, cryptography, computer vision, pattern recognition, information processing and modelling of intelligence.

    2)Scientific computing and numerical analysis. Computational aspects of optimization and control theory. Computer algebra.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that the recognized work of the ten winners of the award all fits into two or three of the possible research areas for which the prize may be rewarded. Why do people think that this is the case?

    Note that I'm not here to troll and say that the Nevanlinna Prize winner from YEAR X shouldn't have won and COMPUTER SCIENTIST Y should have won that year. I'm just genuinely curious as to why all the winners seem to occupy a somewhat narrow slice of the disciplines which it was meant to recognize.

    Is it that algorithms/computational complexity have taken far more significant leaps forward than the other areas since the early 1980's? I'm willing to accept this answer if shown persuasive evidence.

    Is computational complexity the area that feels most familiar to mathematicians, and so when the IMU awards the prize, they have a natural bias?

    Were all the areas thriving in the early 19080's, but then the others petered out in subsequent decades? This seems hard to accept given the recent advanced in machine learning/AI.

    Does the 40 year old age limit make the prize more likely to be awarded for work whose effect can be seen as soon as its correctness has been verified. A lot of computational complexity/algorithms stuff falls into this area. In contrast, in other areas(like AI), it might take decades for the power of an idea to be recognized, and it might only happen when something else happens(like hardware becomes better).

    -Different Anonymous

  7. With the changing of the name, they really should abandon the medal and give the Abacus Medal winner an actual abacus (made of precious materials, suitably ornamental, and with a prominent inscription). Much more interesting than a plain round medal. See the ICTP's Dirac Medal.

  8. Awards like these should be named after X solely based on whether X was a great mathematician, computer scientist, etc. And conversely they should be given to Y on the same grounds alone.

    Just look at what's happened with the Nobel Prizes. The Nobel in Physics or Chemistry is just as prestigious today as it was 100 years ago, but the Nobels for Peace and Literature have become farces. Why is that? Because all these things claim to be based on merit, but only the former subset actually are. It is no longer necessary to be a genuinely great peacemaker to win the Noble Peace Prize, or truly good writer to win the one for Literature. So people no longer treat their recipients as such, and the award no longer garners much respect.

    A similar dynamic applies to the renaming existing awards. You cannot have any stability, including the kind of stability necessary for an award to amass prestige & respect, when every year is Year Zero. Awards can only work when today's people genuinely respect their predecessors and their accomplishments. That isn't really true for zealots who only see the past as something to be put on trial.