Australian mathematician wins Fields Medal

August 03, 2018
Akshay Venkatesh has become only the second Australian to win a Fields Medal

Australian mathematician Akshay Venkatesh has become only the second Australian to win a Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The first was Terence Tao FAA FRS in 2006.

The medal is awarded every four years to between two and four researchers under 40 years old, to recognise outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.

The medal is named after the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields (1863–1932), who conceived the award to celebrate the great achievements in the area. In addition to a gold medal, the winner receives $15,400.

Venkatesh is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, USA 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 has been recognised for ‘his synthesis of analytic number theory, homogeneous dynamics, topology and representation theory.’

The other winners of the 2018 Fields Medal, announced at the International Congress of Mathematics in Brazil, are Alessio Figalli, Caucher Birkar and Peter Scholze.

Professor Venkatesh said just 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. And you have this sensation of transcendence, you feel like you’ve been part of something really meaningful,” Professor Venkatesh said.

Academy Fellow and UWA professor Cheryl Praeger AM FAA, has known Akshay since he was 12 and says he is extraordinary.

‘At our first meeting I was speaking with Akshay’s mother Svetha, while Akshay was sitting at a table in my office reading my blackboard which contained fragments from a supervision of one of my PhD students, just completed,’ recalls Professor Praeger.

‘At Akshay’s request I explained what the problem was. He coped with quite a lot of detail and I found that he could easily grasp the essence of the research.

‘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. He was not seeking credit but rather exemption from the courses,’ says Professor Praeger.

Venkatesh earned a BSc in mathematics and physics with first class honours at UWA in 1997, becoming the youngest ever to achieve this feat. At the age of 16 Venkatesh left Australia for the United States on a UWA Hackett Scholarship, completing his PhD in maths at Princeton in 2002.

‘He’s had such a stellar career since then. 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,’ recalls Professor Praeger.

Watch the video about Akshay’s Fields Medal here.

© 2018 Australian Academy of Science