“Math seems to be exceptional in the sense that
people do tend to get recognition
at a young age.”
“Y
ou’re married to a Fields Medallist.”
That’s the text Xue-Mei Li, then a Professor of
mathematics at the University of Warwick, received one cold
February day. Her husband, Martin Hairer, had just gotten a
phonecall saying that he’d won the 2014 Fields Medal for his
outstanding contributions to the theory of stochastic partial
differential equations.
Along with the Abel Prize, the Fields Medal is considered the
most prestigious prize that a mathematician can receive – not
bad for someone who finished high school not intending to
study mathematics at all.
Hairer began his undergraduate career at the Université de
Genève studying physics, but quickly realized that he didn’t
like the lab work, and was instead attracted to the more
rigorous, theoretical side of the subject. He completed his
PhD in 2001 under Jean-Pierre Eckmann, a mathematical
physicist at the Université de Genève and a pioneer of
chaos theory and social network analysis. It took just thirteen
years from the day of his doctoral dissertation to that pivotal
phonecall.
“Math seems to be exceptional in the sense that people do
tend to get recognition at a young age,” says Hairer. “You
don’t need so many resources, the lab, the manpower. In
math when you’re a PhD student or a postdoc you do pure
research almost 100% of your time, so you can go much
further and faster.”
And rewarding young, promising researchers is part of the
mandate of the Fields Medal, which is only awarded to
mathematicians under the age of 40. Compare this to the
average age of Nobel Prize laureates, which stands at 67
years across all categories and 56 years for physics prizes.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Hairer’s favourite part of
the 2017 Fields Medal Symposium, at which he was the guest
of honour, was the student night, where 150 high school and
undergraduate students met with him over pizza and pop to
discuss probability theory.
“Afterwards there was a whole bunch of them that, sort of,
pinned me to the board and they were very interested,”
laugh