Science Thursday: Fields Medal

Yay, more writing!!! I finally made it to my third series. Remember people – writing is a marathon, no a sprint. Though sometimes you do start just running like a madman with your arms flailing in the air and those around you begin to question your well-being. On that note, welcome to Science Thursday! I didn’t want things here to be skewed too heavily towards any one category, so I figured with Poetry Tuesday, Pluggadamunt, Science Thursday, and my other unscheduled ramblings, I would have enough space to have everything covered. I might add more series, I might not, I don’t know. I am an unrefined being and I roll with it (I am currently drinking applesauce out of its little cup. “Refined” might as well be my middle name).

So about Science Thursday. Back in ye olde days, science was a broad term that meant a body of knowledge, and I plan to keep to that definition here. This will allow me to write about things like history, philosophy, business, etc. without having to title this series something grotesque like Academia of the Past and Present on Thursdays, because I know no one would read that. It sounds awkward and it’s grammatically incorrect. 😦

Onto the actual science part. This week’s topic was inspired by my Abstract Algrebra class. In a room full of Senior math majors, I was the only one other than the teacher who knew that the fields medal was. That would be the equivalent of a Physicist not knowing what the Nobel Prize is: shocking and unacceptable. I don’t mean to sound harsh. Well, I do actually, but in a way that promotes self-awareness of one’s field, not in a way that hurts people’s feelings. With that in mind, please, read on.

The Fields Medal is called the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics” for good reason. The Nobel Prize categories are Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economic Studies, so unless a mathematician is doing great work in one of those areas, he or she would be ineligible for the Nobel. However, the Fields Medal is specifically for mathematics, and is just as prestigious, though there are some marked differences.

The Nobel Prize is awarded annually to a single individual in each category, though there are exceptions (a category may have up to three recipients or laureates). The laureates are chosen much like the Oscars: the Nobel committee sends out a list of nominees to about 3,000 people (or to governments in the case of the Peace Prize), and they take a vote. A fancy dinner is involved. And you get to visit Sweden.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (held in various places) to two, three, or four (never just one) people not over forty who have demonstrated remarkable work in their field. If you go to the Wikipedia page, you find that the medalist have been awarded for work in things like Reimann surfaces and complex geometries and topologies and crazy things with weird names. I can help you out by saying that most of those categories lie in the field of Complex Mathematics. Not “Complex” in the traditional sense, but in the mathematical one.

In Mathematics, “complex” means that you’re working with imaginary numbers, meaning the square root of -1. If you’re unfamiliar, the square root of -1 is strange because a square root separates a number into two equal factors (Remember factor trees? Man those were the days). Unfortunately, there’s no way to break up -1 into two equal factors,  so an Italian fellow by the name of Gerolamo Cardano said “Screw it! Just call the damn thing i” sometime in the 16th century, and that was that. Okay so maybe he didn’t say it exactly that way, but you can’t prove that beyond reasonable doubt, so I’m sticking to my story. (If you want to learn more about i, you can check out the book An Imaginary Tale: The Story of [the Square Root of Minus One])

This past year, the Fields Medal was awarded to four people: Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, Martin Hairer, and Maryam Mirzakhani. I’m going to focus on the first and last person, because they are the most interesting to me, and I make the rules here.

Artur Avila is a Brazilian/French mathematician who won the Medal for ” his profound contributions to dynamical systems theory, which have changed the face of the field, using the powerful idea of renormalization as a unifying principle.” That’s a big friggin deal. Dynamical systems theory is used EVERYWHERE. Whenever you see people on TV predicting something kind of outrageous with a mathematical function, 9 times out of 10 that’s a dynamical system. Dynamical systems model things with respect to time. And I say things because what they model is so broad you can’t narrow it down to a specific category. Those earthy people who predict how many of [insert animal] will come back each year? Dynamical Systems. Physics? Pretty much all dynamical systems. Avila is also the first Latin American to win the Medal. So Kudos to you, man. 🙂

Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman (and first Iranian) ever to be awarded the Fields Medal. Oh, and she’s a professor at Standford, which I guess is impressive or whatever. She was awarded the Medal “for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces,” which is a fancy way of saying she made a major contribution to the understanding of the symmetry of curved surfaces (Symmetry is a huge deal in Mathematics. So are curved surfaces). An article on Stanford’s website suggests that her research has major implications in Physics and Quantum Field Theory, which is pretty baller.

Mirzakhani is a standout kind of special because she is talented in many diverse specialties of mathematics. In general, in Math you’re either an Algebra person, a Calculus person, an Analysis (statistics) person, or a Geometry person. She is all four. It makes her kind of a magical golden unicorn of Mathematics. She’s also super pretty. Although screw that reporter lady for suggesting that men are genetically better at math. That’s ridiculous and scientifically inaccurate. Keep to the facts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your first taste of Science Thursday. I’ll admit, I enjoyed writing this much more than I thought I would. I’m looking forward to finding more things to write about and more science-y things to share with you.


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