Australian wins highest international honour in mathematics

Monday, 28 August, 2006

The Fields Medal, considered to be the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, was awarded to Professor Terence Tao. This is the first time an Australian has won this award.

It is awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union at the International Congress of Mathematicians to a candidate no older than 40.

Intended to recognise exceptional achievement by young mathematicians, the Fields Medal is generally awarded for a body of work rather than for a single, isolated research result.

Terry Tao has made breakthroughs in a wide variety of very difficult problems, including the understanding of the very delicate behaviour of complicated equations that describe wave motion in various physical media.

His work applies to the way that light can interact with itself when transmitted in a fibre-optic cable. His most famous recent discovery (in collaboration with Professor Ben Green of Cambridge University) concerns prime numbers. Prime numbers are familiar to all school children. Since at least the 18th century, mathematicians have tried to discover whether it is possible to find long strings of prime numbers that are a constant distance apart.

These are called arithmetic progressions of primes. For example, 3, 5, 7 is an arithmetic progression of length 3, where the numbers differ by 2; 109, 219, 329, 439, 549 is a progression of length 5, where the numbers differ by 110.

The longest known string, discovered in 2004, shortly before the work of Tao and Green, contains 23 primes, starting at 56211383760397 and going up in jumps of 44546738095860.

Tao and Green proved that there are arbitrarily long strings of prime numbers that are a constant distance apart. They also gave ways of measuring how thickly spread such long strings are among the primes.

Their work may have implications for possible new methods of encryption and security of information. Professor Garth Gaudry, director of the International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM) at The University of Melbourne, who taught Tao from the age of 12 at Flinders University, was at the awards ceremony.

"Terry Tao is a phenomenally creative mathematician whose ideas are having a profound impact across an unusually wide range of deep problems in mathematics. He richly deserves this award," Gaudry said.

"His ideas may well have unforeseen applications. For example, the theory of prime numbers and factorisation are the basis of some of the most important codes for the protection of information, including banking information. So it is intriguing to wonder where his work will eventually lead."

Tao is now professor of mathematics at UCLA, Los Angeles, USA, a position he gained at the age of 24. A gifted student from a very early age, he started taking high school classes when he was only 8 years old. At age 11, he was studying calculus and winning international mathematics competitions. By age 12, he was studying mathematics normally regarded as third-year university material and by 14, the most challenging postgraduate material. He graduated from Flinders University in Adelaide with a BSc Hons at age 16 and an MSc at age 17, both supervised by Gaudry. At 21 he gained a PhD from Princeton University. Prior to winning the Fields Medal, he had won virtually every top international research prize in mathematics.

Other winners of the 2006 Fields Medals are: Andrei Okounkov, Grigori Perelman and Wendelin Werner.

The medals, gold-minted, are named after the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields (1863-1932) and were first awarded at the International Congress held in Oslo in 1936.

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