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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Plumber

£30000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An independent boys' school sit...

Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate - Newly Qualified Teachers Required For Sept 2015

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate Teachers/ Newly Qua...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required for a 'Good@ school - Ofsted 2015

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: My client primary school loc...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers Required in Norwich and Great Yarmouth

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am working on behalf of a ...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue