Medaling Mathematicians

You may consider the Fields Medal a boon to the mathematical community as it showcases amazing young mathematicians and brings math into the limelight. Or you may view the Fields Medal as an unfortunate reinforcement of the notion that mathematics is the work of lone geniuses. Whichever the case, you can blog about it, and you’ll be in good company.

From left to right :, Subhash, Khot, Martin Hairer, Manjul Bhargava,  the South Korean President Park Geun-Hye , Maryam Mirzakhani , the President of the International Mathematical Union (IMU) Ingrid Daubechies, and Artur Avila.

From left to right: Dr. Martin Hairer, Dr. Manjul Bhargava, the South Korean President Park Geun-Hye , Dr. Maryam Mirzakhani , the President of the International Mathematical Union (IMU) Dr. Ingrid Daubechies, and Dr. Artur Avila. Photos Courtesy of Dr. Alina Bucur.

The four winners of the Fields medal are pictured above at the International Congress of Mathematics (ICM).  Hands down, the best summaries of these winners’ contributions as well as the contributions of the Nevalina Prize winner were written by Erica Klarreich and Natalie Wolchover at Quanta Magazine. The accompanying videos provided at the Simon’s Center site are great for showing in a classroom. It’s particularly inspiring to me to see Maryam Mirzakhani drawing diagrams of manifolds on giant pieces of paper in her living room and talking about how her three-year-old daughter probably thinks she’s an artist. Also very interesting is the non-academic background of Artur Avila, who is Brazilian, and likes to think about math problems while he walks down the beach. Short videos like these will likely prove quite inspirational to young kids.

Lucky for you and me, I happen to subscribe to the email list of Women In Number Theory, on which Alina Bucur, a Number Theorist from UCSD, posted some great photos of the ceremony that she agreed to share. The beaming smiles of the recipients are much more lively to me than the official pictures making the rounds. In particular, I like these of Mirkazhani and Bhargava with Ingrid Daubechies, the inventor of wavelets and president of the IMU.


Because of the Fields Medal ceremonies, there were a few unexpected corners of the web where math showed up this week that actually described the mathematical accomplishments in some detail. Some of the basic ideas behind winner Maryam Mirzakhani’s research were covered in a Business Insider Article and an inforgraphic at a tutoring website (matific).

It was particularly interesting to read the comments on the BI article, in which a large portion of the discussion was based around whether a practical application of her work existed, or whether it mattered.

The Aperiodical blog’s great round-up pointed out that even popular outlets like Elle and Jezebel covered the medal this year. Four posts that I’d like to highlight that have recently come out are:

Jordan Ellenberg’s Slate piece, Math is Getting Dynamic, details the rise of Dynamics, the field of two of the young winners – Maryam Mirkhazani and Avila. He does a great job of making this field relatable and approachable.

Cathy O’Neil at mathbabe expresses her dismay at the tendency of awards such as the Field’s medal to paint a picture of mathematics as non-collaborative by awarding individuals rather than groups.

Izabella Laba’s short post expresses her feelings about attending the awards ceremony.

Mike Lawler’s reflection on how Mirzakhani’s high school experience made him reflect on his own great teachers and mentors.

In closing, it’s disappointing to all of those suave mathematicians out there I’m sure, but Nobel didn’t leave math out of his prizes because his wife slept with a mathematician.  As Evelyn points out in her recent post about how to talk about the Fields Medal at cocktail parties, the inventor of dynamite wasn’t even married.


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