Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Wednesday Math, Vol. 41: The Fields Medal

There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics. The reasons for this slight are unknown. Alfred Nobel originally started a fund to award major contributions in Peace, Literature, Physics, Chemistry and Physiology/Medicine. So all the hard sciences are covered but math is left out. In 1968, long after Nobel is dead, the committee decided to give out yearly awards in one more discipline (and I use the word loosely), economics. Mathematicians consider this a major slap in the face.

Then again, why Literature and not Music? It's a funny old world.

There are awards in math with prestige and a nice fat paycheck attached, though none quite as fat a Nobel Prize paycheck, and the best known is the Fields Medal, first awarded in the 1930's and since 1950 awarded every four years, sometimes to as many as four recipients. Named for a Canadian mathematician, the award is given to mathematicians under the age of 40. This age restriction has only presented a major problem only once so far, when it was obvious that Andrew Wiles, the guy who finally proved Fermat's Last Theorem after mathematicians had struggled with the problem for over 300 years, finished his work after the age of 40 but clearly deserved the highest recognition possible in the field. The prize committee gave him a special silver medal.

Cold war politics entered into the Fields medal ceremonies a few times, twice when Soviet mathematicians were not allowed to travel to accept their awards. Another time in 1966, the International Congress was held in Moscow and French prize winner Alexander Grothendieck boycotted the presentation to protest Soviet military actions in Eastern Europe.

Only one recipient, Grisha Perelman, has refused the award, and I have already written about him in a post last November entitled Are All Mathematicians Crazy?

I've only met one Fields medalist in my life, and that's Bill Thurston, who was teaching at UC Davis when I was studying for my doctorate, studies I did not complete. Thurston is unique among top mathematical researchers in that he is also intensely involved in mathematical education. Here is a link to a .pdf file of Thurston's paper on mathematical education, which is definitely worth a read if you have any interest in the subject. It's written to be accessible to people at any mathematical level, and while it doesn't have all the answers, it does a very good job of laying out almost all of the questions.

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