An Australian has just won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics

Akshay Venkatesh. Image: Screenshot from video, Australian Academy of Science
  • An Australian has won the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
  • Akshay Venkatesh is a professor of mathematics at Stanford University.
  • He won the award for “synthesis of analytic number theory, homogeneous dynamics, topology and representation theory”.

Akshay Venkatesh, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University in the US, has become the second Australian to win a Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The first was Terence Tao in 2006.

The 36-year-old, who finished school at 13 and gained his first degree from the University of Western Australia at 16, says 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,” he says.

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

Venkatesh gets $15,400 and a gold medal for his “synthesis of analytic number theory, homogeneous dynamics, topology and representation theory”.

He is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he will soon take up a longer-term role.

University of Western Australia professor Cheryl Praeger, who has known Akshay since he was 12, 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,” she says.

“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.”

The Australian Academy of Science put together this clip on the win:

Venkatesh earned a BSc in mathematics and physics with first class honours at UWA in 1997 and at the age of 16 left Australia for the US on a Hackett Scholarship, completing his PhD in maths at Princeton in 2002.

“I was a bit concerned about a 16 year old going to Princeton in 1998,” says Praeger.

“I discovered that a colleague Peter Sarnak whom I had met only once, was in Princeton. I wrote to Peter asking him to keep an eye on this young Australian student Akshay.

“As it turned out Akshay became Peter Sarnak’s student and Peter refers to him as one of his very best.”

The Fields Medal is named after the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields who conceived the award to celebrate the great achievements in the area.

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