The Fields Medal, considered to be the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, was awarded on 22 August 2006 to Professor Terence Tao. The Fields Medal is the highest international scientific award for mathematicians and is considered to be "The Nobel Prize of Mathematics". This is the first time an Australian has won this very prestigious award.The Fields Medal is awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union (IMU) at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) to a candidate no older than 40. Professor Tao is 31 years old. He was presented with his medal by His Majesty, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, at the Congress held in Madrid, attended by some 4000 mathematicians from all over the world.
Between two and four Fields Medals can be awarded at each ICM. Intended to recognise exceptional achievement by young mathematicians, the Fields Medal is generally awarded for a body of work rather than for a single, isolated research result. This is because the medal is meant to encourage future endeavour.
Terry Tao has made spectacular breakthroughs in an extraordinarily wide variety of very difficult problems, including the understanding of the very delicate behaviour of complicated equations that describe wave motion in various physical media. His work applies to the way that light can interact with itself when transmitted in a fibre-optic cable. His most famous recent discovery in collaboration with Professor Ben Green of Cambridge University concerns prime numbers. Prime numbers are familiar to all school children. Since at least the 18th century, mathematicians have tried to discover whether it is possible to find long strings of prime numbers that are a constant distance apart. These are called arithmetic progressions of primes. For example, 3, 5, 7 is an arithmetic progression of length 3, where the numbers differ by 2. The longest known string, discovered in 2004, shortly before the work of Tao and Green, contains 23 primes, starting at 56211383760397 and going up in jumps of 44546738095860.
Tao and Green proved that there are arbitrarily long strings of prime numbers that are a constant distance apart. They also gave ways of measuring how thickly spread such long strings are among the primes. Their work may have implications for possible new methods of encryption and security of information.
Professor Garth Gaudry, Director of the International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM), taught Terry Tao from the age of 12 at Flinders University and attended the awards ceremony. "Terry Tao is a phenomenally creative mathematician whose ideas are having a profound impact across an unusually wide range of deep problems in mathematics. He richly deserves this award," he said. "His ideas may well have unforeseen applications. For example, the theory of prime numbers and factorisation are the basis of some of the most important codes for the protection of information, including banking information. So it is intriguing to wonder where his work will eventually lead."
Terry Tao is now Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, a position he gained at the age of 24. A gifted student from a very early age, he started taking high school classes when he was only 8 years old. At age 11, he was studying calculus and winning international mathematics competitions. By age 12, he was studying mathematics normally regarded as third year university material and by 14, the most challenging postgraduate material. He graduated from Flinders University in Adelaide with a BSc Hons at age 16 and an MSc at age 17, both supervised by Professor Gaudry. At 21 he gained a PhD from Princeton University. Prior to winning the Fields Medal, he had won virtually every top international research prize in mathematics.
"I began teaching Terry Tao when he was only 12 years old," said Professor Gaudry. " Even at that age, he exhibited stunning insight and creativity. Discovering new mathematics was such an enjoyable adventure for Terry. To be Terry's teacher was, for me, the privilege of a lifetime."
The Fields Medals, gold-minted, are named after the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields (1863-1932). They were first awarded at the International Congress held in Oslo in 1936.
The obverse of the medal shows Archimedes facing right and the motto "Transire Suum Pectus Mundoque Potir": "To transcend one's spirit and to take hold of (to master) the world". On the reverse side, also in Latin, the inscription reads: "The mathematicians having congregated from the whole world awarded (this medal) because of outstanding writings". The name of the medallist is engraved on the rim of the medal.
Australian Ambassador Congratulates Terry Tao
The Australian ambassador to Spain, Ms Susan Tanner, came to meet and congratulate Fields Medallist Terry Tao at the Australian Mathematics booth at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid. Most of the Australian delegates at the Congress were also present to celebrate the event. Terry's medal was a focus of enthusiastic interest.