The $3m prize for maths? Welcome to the X2+y2 factor - Education News - Education - The Independent

The $3m prize for maths? Welcome to the X2+y2 factor

A new multi-million dollar prize for maths aims to bring rock star status to pointy-headed academics, even though no one really understands what they do. About time, says Steve Connor

A handful of mathematicians – there is perhaps no better collective noun – have each won a prize worth $3m (£1.7m) for their contributions to the esoteric world of numbers, thanks to a group of internet billionaires, including Marc Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Yuri Milner, who gave up physics for the more lucrative field of tech start-ups.

The inaugural 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics is the biggest award in maths and is Milner's attempt to bring rock star status to the pointy-headed academics who work on the sort of cerebral problems that defy analysis for the vast majority of the population.

One of the five winners, for instance, is Simon Donaldson, 56, of Stony Brook University and Imperial College London, who won his $3m for "the new revolutionary invariants of 4-dimensional manifolds and for the study of the relation between stability in algebraic geometry and in global differential geometry, both for bundles and for Fano varieties".

The second Briton is Richard Taylor of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who won his $3m for "breakthrough results in the theory of automorphic forms, including the Taniyama-Weil conjecture, the local Langland conjecture for general linear groups, and the Sato-Tate conjecture". Mathematics may be beautiful, but it's a beauty only a few can see.

Taylor is reported to be thinking about what to do with his winnings now that he can tell his colleagues – like the other winners, he was sworn to secrecy until the announcement was made official yesterday . "These prizes give the impression this work is done by a few people, but that's not the case. Everyone bases their work on other people's work," Taylor says.

The other winners of the first Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics are Maxim Kontsevich of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France, Jacob Lurie of Harvard and Terence Tao of the University of California, Los Angeles, who each work in areas heavily marked with "no entry" signs, such as "symplectic topology", "elliptical cohomology" and "combinatorics". As part of the deal, all the winners have agreed to sit on the selection committee for subsequent prizes. They have promised to attend an awards ceremony designed to bring adoration to professional mathematicians in order to inspire future generations of children, according to Milner.

"We think scientists should be much better appreciated. They should be modern celebrities, alongside athletes and entertainers," Milner says. "We want young people to get more excited. Maybe they will think of choosing a scientific path as opposed to other endeavours if we collectively celebrate them more," he says. "Intellectual brilliance is under-capitalised in our society… The greatest thinkers of our age should be superstars, like the geniuses of screen and stadium," he adds.

There is one problem with such a modern sentiment, however. Mathematicians may do it with a computer (or a slide-rule), but they don't do it for money or fame. Take the case of Grigori Perelman, from the Steklov Institute of Mathematics in St Petersburg, who quietly toiled away for eight years on one of hardest problems in maths, initially proposed in 1904 by Frenchman Henri Poincaré.

Perelman, in a series of brilliant insights, eventually managed to solve Poincaré's conjecture, which deals with the properties of surfaces in two, three or more dimensions. The conjecture is difficult to conceptualise, but in essence it's suggested that all shapes can be reduced to either spheres or doughnuts. Perelman managed to convince a sceptical world that his proof was genuine and so was awarded a number of honours, including the prestigious Fields Medal (the Nobel Prize in maths) and a separate $1m prize offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The trouble, however, is that Perelman is a recluse, living alone with his mother in a flat in St Petersburg. His only (reluctant) contact with the press came when he shouted at a reporter though his front door, saying: "I'm not interested in money or fame; I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo."

Clearly some mathematicians aren't suited to being rock stars.

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

DT Teacher -Key stage 3 all areas

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a DT teache...

Science teachers needed in Cromer

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Year 4 Teacher

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Year 4 Teacher - NestonRandsta...

Year 6 Teacher

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Year 6 Teacher - ChesterRandst...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week