Stanford University Prof. Akshay Venkatesh was awarded the Fields Medal, mathematics highest honor, by the International Mathematical Union on Aug. 1, at the International Congress of Mathematicians, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Venkatesh, 36, was awarded the honor “for his synthesis of analytic number theory, homogeneous dynamics, topology, and representation theory, which has resolved long-standing problems in areas such as the equidistribution of arithmetic objects,” noted IMU in his award citation.
The Indian American mathematician, who is currently taking a sabbatical at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, said in a video shown at ICM: “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.”
Venkatesh was one of four recipients of the medal, which is awarded every four years, and is officially known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. Princeton mathematician Manjul Bhargava was the first Indian American to receive the honor in 2014 (see India-West report here).
Venkatesh joined Peter Scholze, a professor of mathematics at the University of Bonn who – at age 30 – is one of the youngest recipients of the medal. Caucher Birkar, of the University of Cambridge in England; and Alessio Figalli of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich also received the honor this year.
According to a press statement issued by Stanford, Venkatesh was born in New Delhi, and grew up in Perth, Australia, where he developed an early love of math. “When I was maybe around 7, I remember I had this spiral notebook and I’d just learned about binary and I remember writing in red various numbers, translated into binary,” Venkatesh said in the video shown at ICM. “I think just manipulating numbers makes me feel happy.”
He began competing in the state mathematical Olympiad program as a child, and at 11 won a bronze medal in the International Physics Olympiad. The next year he won a bronze medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad.
The math prodigy graduated from high school at 13 and attended the University of Western Australia. He graduated with First Class Honors in pure math, the youngest student ever to do so, and was awarded the J. A. Woods Memorial Prize for being the leading graduating student of the year. He then went on to earn his doctorate from Princeton University.
Venkatesh joined Stanford’s math department in 2008.
“On behalf of the entire Stanford community, I extend my congratulations to Akshay for winning the Fields Medal, the highest honor in his discipline,” said Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, in a press statement.
“We are incredibly proud of his contributions to mathematics, and I know his work will serve as an inspiration to aspiring mathematicians at Stanford and throughout the world,” he said.
“I am thrilled that my colleague Akshay Venkatesh won the Fields Medal,” said Eleny Ionel, chair of the mathematics department in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford. “Akshay is a broad mathematician with a variety of interests spanning across several fields, and with an extraordinary ability to work collaboratively with experts in many different areas. He is also a great teacher and a wonderful colleague.”
One substantial area of Venkatesh’s work has been finding more ways in which homogenous dynamics can be used in number theory, noted Stanford University in a press statement. For example, Venkatesh describes a ball bouncing inside a triangle when the ball doesn’t slow down. His math asks questions about what spaces the ball avoids or prefers and how this changes if the triangle’s sides are curved. He then uses those ideas to solve problems in number theory.
Brian Conrad, professor of mathematics at Stanford, said Venkatesh is unique in that his expertise covers the whole range of number theory. “Most number theorists tend to work on one side or the other because each aspect is already quite big and it’s very difficult to assimilate the tools from all the different areas,” he said.