2019 Magazine - Silver

Caucher Birkar grew up in a Kurdish peasant family in a war zone in Iran. An older brother started teaching him mathematics beyond what was in his textbooks, and he won acceptance into Tehran University, where his interest in math was further nurtured. But he eventually applied for asylum in Britain and was arbitrarily settled in Nottingham, where he lived with three other asylum seekers, unable to work and paying for food with vouchers. While in a “bureaucratic purgatory,” as Tom Whipple of The Times of London, describes it, Birkar benefited from a happy circumstance. The local Nottingham University had a strong mathematics department and he found professors willing to listen to his math ideas. Whipple traces the arc of Birkar’s career from there to an eventual Fields Medal — the math equivalent of a Nobel — while now on the faculty at Cambridge University. Whipple does not shy away from trying to explain the substance of Birkar’s work in algebraic geometry, but he writes: “The problem with explaining maths is not, or at least not always, the stupidity” of the listeners. “It is more fundamental than that: it is language. Mathematics is not designed to be described in words. It is designed to be described in mathematics. This is the great triumph of the subject. It was why a Kurdish asylum seeker with bad English could convince a tenured professor he was a serious intellect.” Whipple’s story “is friendly and welcoming, which is especially important for a math story,” said Laura Helmuth, health, science and environment editor of The Washington Post. “It challenged many of the myths of what it means to be a math genius — and, crucially right now, what it means to be a refugee.”  Of his story, Whipple said: “It is difficult to know which is rarer in the national press — a profile of a Kurd or a long-form piece about algebraic geometry. This combined the two, and this award is a huge validation.”