Second Addendum: There’s no problem with the original post, but the first addendum is based on a misunderstanding of Kenneth Chang’s first comment. I thought he had received no advance notice about the Fields Medals and needed to turn a story around right away, as many of us have done when Nobel Prize time rolls around. In a subsequent comment, he says he got an embargoed notice three weeks ahead of the announcement.
Some people may not have had advance notice about the Fields Medals. Embargoed press releases don’t necessarily reach everyone with an interest in writing about a given topic. I do not know how long the Quanta writers had been aware of the Fields Medal recipients.
Within the long comments thread below, Thomas Lin of Quanta says they got early access by asking for it. Asking for information often works surprisingly well. At this point it’s fair to give the Quanta writers the benefit of the doubt that if they got more lead time, it was through enterprising journalistic practice. If evidence to the contrary surfaces before the Tracker is finished being killed, we’ll let you know.
First Addendum: Most reporters did not get advance notice of the Fields Medal winners, and were therefore faced with the daunting task of explaining some difficult math on the spot. Kenneth Chang pulls it off and adds some great background on women in math: Top Math Prize Has its First Female Winner
The Fields Medal is often called the Nobel Prize of math, and this year it got more attention than usual with the first award ever going to a female recipient, Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University.
Most news outlets scrambled to paste something together from the Stanford news release and other news sources. But at the online magazine Quanta, readers were treated to detailed, beautifully written profiles of all four winners and one honorable mention.
All wove rich personality profiles into explanations of the mathematical achievements that led to the award, which is restricted to mathematicians under 40. There are insights to be gained on the nature of work, creativity and success.
- In Noisy Equations, One Who Heard Music: Experts say Martin Hairer’s epic masterpiece in stochastic analysis “created a whole world.” By: Natalie Wolchover
- The Musical, Magical Number Theorist: The search for artistic truth and beauty has led Manjul Bhargava to some of the most profound recent discoveries in number theory. By: Erica Klarreich with reporting by Thomas Lin
- A Grand Vision for the Impossible: Subhash Khot’s bold conjecture is helping mathematicians explore the precise limits of computation. By Thomas Lin and Erica Klarreich
And the first winner from Brazil, with some interesting background on the importance of this honor for the country:
- A Brazilian Wunderkind Who Calms Chaos – Artur Avila’s solutions to ubiquitous problems in chaos theory have earned him Brazil’s first Fields Medal. By Thomas Lin and Erica Klarreich
In the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup competition, popular news websites and TV shows like “Good Morning Brazil” parroted the question: How has the world’s seventh-largest economy managed to score five World Cup titles but zero Nobel Prizes? (The British biologist Peter Medawar’s tenuous connection to Brazil — born there but raised in his mother’s native England — merits at best an asterisk.) Even Argentina, that bitter soccer rival with a population one-fifth the size of Brazil’s, boasts five Nobel laureates.
- And finally, the first ever female recipient: A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces: Maryam Mirzakhani’s monumental work draws deep connections between topology, geometry and dynamical systems. By Erica Klarreich with reporting by Thomas Lin
Other pieces mentioned with some irony that Mirzakhani describes herself as “slow”, but in this profile it makes perfect sense. While she discovered math as an Olympiad sprinter, she found she had what it took to be an utramarathon champion:
Gold medals at the mathematical Olympiad don’t always translate into success in mathematics research, McMullen observed. “In these contests, someone has carefully crafted a problem with a clever solution, but in research, maybe the problem doesn’t have a solution at all.” Unlike many Olympiad high-scorers, he said, Mirzakhani “has the ability to generate her own vision.”
Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects” of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. “And still there’s not much I can do about them,” she said.
Also appearing today is a fun and fascinating Scientific American blog post by mathematician Evelyn Lamb, How to Talk About the Fields Medal at Your Next Cocktail Party. Learn all kinds of facts about the history of the prize and how it’s not exactly like a Nobel Prize. – Faye Flam