Four mathematicians share Fields Medal
On the face of it there is little similarity between Frenchman Cedric Villani with wavy long hair and a red silk bow tie with reticent Ngo Bao Chau who received his first math tutorial literally under gunfire in warring Vietnam in the early 1970s.
But the reserved oriental and expressive occidental mathematician have a deep-seated common interest in solving fundamental problems in higher mathematics that fetch both of them a Fields Medal – equivalent to Nobel Prize in Mathematics – catapulting them to a galaxy of star wizards whose works shaped the IT and telecom industry, medical imaging and modern physics in many ways.
Vilani and Chau won the award along with Israeli Elon Lindenstrauss and Swiss wizard Stanislav Smirnov. The four mathematicians, all under 40, received the Fields Medal from President Pratibha Patil who kick started the world’s biggest congregation of mathematicians with more than 3,000 delegates in Hyderabad on Thursday. For the first time India is hosting the congress which had been held only twice in Asia.
Instituted in 1936 in memory of Canadian mathematician J C Fields, the medal is the most important prize in the field of mathematics. No Indian has ever won it but a few including Harish Chandra were believed to have been nominated for it.
The quadrennial mathematics congress also awarded two other achievers – Daniel Spielman of Yale University and Yves Meyer from École normale Supérieure in Paris – whose research is exploited in areas as diverse as satellite communication to computer memories and space telescope and a 85-year-old peer Louis Nirenberg for being one of the outstanding analysts of 20th century.
Later speaking to the media, Villani – the funny man among the four – said he thought that the mail from International Mathematical Union on his selection was a “hoax” and Lindenstrauss candidly admitted that the Field’s medalists did not understand each other’s work as they are too complex. Chau, on the other hand, reflected on the past.
“Growing up in Hanoi in the revolution days was tough. The living conditions were difficult and economy was in bad shape. Also we had friends and family members who were either involved in the war or were killed,” Chau told Deccan Herald.
Chau shifted to Europe in the 1990s and then to the USA for studies that finally led to his prize research on the removal of impediments to a grand programme that connects seemingly disparate areas of mathematics.
“One of the purpose of giving away the awards is to tell the people that mathematics is a live subject and it did not end in the 17th, 18th, 19th century,” IMU president Laszlo Lavasz said advising the students that it could be a career choice because it would help in other areas even if they want to shift.
But students must be aware of the initial barriers. “Reading maths is generally hard. There is hardly any book which gives easy fluent reading,” said octogenarian Nirenberg.