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They Call Him the ‘Mozart of Math’


They Call Him the ‘Mozart of Math’

Terence Tao
: Professor of Mathematics, University of California,
Los Angeles
Education: Ph.D., Math, Princeton University; M.Sc.
and B.Sc., Math, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia
Age: 31

Talk about a very good year. Last August, Dr. Terence Tao won the prestigious Fields Medal — often described as the Nobel Prize in mathematics — at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid, Spain. The Fields Medal is especially meaningful in that it is awarded once every four years. A month after receiving the Fields Medal, the UCLA math professor also won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. The two high-profile awards are only the latest accolades for the native of Australia.

To say success has come early to Tao would be an understatement. His extraordinary mathematical ability was recognized at the
age of 2.

“Apparently, I liked teaching the children of my parents’ friends how to solve the math I saw on ‘Sesame Street,’” says Tao. At age 7, he was attending high school and studying calculus. At 9, when most children were learning basic word problems, Tao was enrolled at Flinders University in Australia and acing college-level calculus. At 20, he had earned his doctorate from Princeton University and joined UCLA’s math faculty. By 24, he was a full professor.

Last fall’s international awards put a brighter spotlight on the young mathematician’s scholarship. So many journalists wanted interviews that the attention was interfering with his work. The publicity has also drawn students and faculty from around the world to UCLA, in hopes of studying under him or working with him.

“He hasn’t changed. He doesn’t have an ego. He’s very modest and friendly,” says Dr. Christoph Thiele, chair of UCLA’s mathematics department.

He has known Tao for eight years and says his greatest asset is
the speed with which he grasps ideas.

Tao specializes in harmonic analysis, an advanced form of calculus that uses equations derived from physics. He is known as the world’s expert on the “Kakeya conjecture,” a challenging set of five problems. Tao and a colleague, Dr. Ben Green of the University of Cambridge, proved that prime numbers contain infinitely many progressions of all finite lengths. Discover magazine pronounced their work one of the 100 most important scientific discoveries in 2004.

Tao also works with nonlinear partial differential equations and in the fields of algebraic geometry, number theory and combinatorics.

Many non-math types do not fully comprehend the impact that scholarly math research can have on practical, life-improving applications. For example, by studying temperature and climate data, mathematicians can help meteorologists improve their weather predictions. The search engine Google owes its great success to skilled mathematicians. And mathematicians remain crucial in the banking and finance fields.

“Math gives you the tools to solve problems,” says Tao. “Math teaches you to think clearly. Mathematicians are able to take problems they haven’t seen before and solve them, not just follow a recipe.”

He says he loves the challenge of his work, but there is no secret strategy to solving these mathematical puzzles. When at work on a problem, he draws on what strategies have succeeded in the past and he often finds the answer. Similarly, he says there was no strategy that led him into this career.

“It just evolved,” he says. “I find something interesting in my research. That evolves into something else. I suppose it’s serendipity.”

His advice to young scholars, regardless of academic interest, is not to focus only on one goal. Be flexible, he says.

Tao, who is married and the father of a 4-year-old son, says work and family keep him too busy to indulge in hobbies.

Even if more accolades come his way — and they no doubt will — Tao says there is no chance he will ever become conceited.
“With math, it is easy to remain humble,” he points out.

“There are so many problems you can’t solve.”

— By Eleanor Lee Yates

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