Fields Notes 17:3 - Page 15

“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