Australian mathematician wins prestigious Fields Medal

Thursday, 02 August, 2018

Australian mathematician wins prestigious Fields Medal

Number theorist Akshay Venkatesh has become the second Australian in history to win a Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.

Conceived by Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields (1863–1932), the prize is awarded by the International Mathematical Union to recognise outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement. It is presented every four years to between two and four researchers under 40 years old, each of whom receives both a gold medal and $15,400 in prize money.

Venkatesh was one of four winners of the 2018 Fields Medal, announced at the International Congress of Mathematics in Brazil, alongside Italy’s Alessio Figalli, the UK’s Caucher Birkar and Germany’s Peter Scholze. Specifically, he was recognised for his synthesis of analytic number theory, homogeneous dynamics, topology and representation theory.

“I’m a number theorist, so that means I study whole numbers, integers, prime numbers, things like that,” Venkatesh explained. “What that means is, I’m looking for new patterns in the arithmetic of numbers.”

Venkatesh was a child prodigy, having finished secondary school at 13, earned a BSc in maths and physics from The University of Western Australia (UWA) at 16 and a received a PhD from Princeton University at 20. One of his early mentors, UWA Professor Cheryl Praeger AM FAA, has known Akshay since he was 12 and said he is extraordinary.

“Akshay became the youngest ever student to study at UWA and went straight into second-year maths units, writing exam papers over the summer for core first year maths courses he had never taken to demonstrate that he did not need to do those units,” she said. “He was not seeking credit but rather exemption from the courses.”

Now 36, Venkatesh is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University and has spent the past year as visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, where he will soon take up a longer-term role.

“He’s had such a stellar career,” Professor Praeger said. “A Clay research fellowship taken in New York, full professorship at Stanford and this year he will be moving back to Princeton. Twice Akshay has visited UWA as Professor at Large, where it was great hearing his lectures and seeing his interactions with students.”

Venkatesh has solved many longstanding problems by combining methods from seemingly unrelated areas, presented novel viewpoints on classical problems and produced strikingly far-reaching conjectures. He said manipulating numbers makes him feel happy.

“A lot of the time when you do math, you’re stuck, but at the same time there are all these moments where you feel privileged that you get to work with it,” he said. “And you have this sensation of transcendence; you feel like you’ve been part of something really meaningful.”

Speaking of his latest honour, he said, “It’s really a very nice feeling to have that recognition of what I’ve been doing.”

Top image: Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU), showing a bas relief of Archimedes (as identified by the Greek text).

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