Of this year’s Indian-origin Fields medal winner, Akshay Venkatesh,Quanta notes, “He is known for moving into an area of mathematics, transforming it, and then moving on”. Venkatesh is set to become a permanent faculty member at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey—joining a league that includes Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel, including quite a few Fields medal winners. While Venkatesh is globally recognised for his work using dynamics theory that involves equations of moving objects to solve problems in number theory, the Fields citation mentions his “profound contributions to an exceptionally broad range of subjects in mathematics” and his “strikingly far-reaching conjectures”. The import of his work is perhaps best understood in the fact that the Fields medal generally recognises mathematical work that solved highly complex, well-known problems. Much of Venkatesh’s recent work is in the realm of the speculative—and speculative here is not used in the negative sense it usually is—if not downright abstract; it involves the Langlands programme which is based on a complex interplay of number theory, geometry and analysis.
Venkatesh, Quanta reports, may be eager to shed the prodigy tag that mentors and peers often attach to him, but the fact is that, before he earned his first-class honours in mathematics at 16 years of age and bagged a PhD by 20, he made podium finishes at international maths and physics Olympiads. Many honours have come his way since, but, he reportedly has mixed feelings about awards as they tend to celebrate individuals, thereby fortifying the idea of the lone genius which he believes is a myth. The Fields honour for Venkatesh comes right after Manjul Bhargava’s win in 2014. While India celebrates Venkatesh’s win, it must remember that it, too, can have home-bred Bhargavas and Venkateshs—it will need the rethinking of the entire education ecosystem, though.