Okounkov wins prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics work

Aug. 22, 2006 12:51 p.m.
Andrei Okounkov

Andrei Okounkov

Photo courtesy of Andrei Okounkov

Princeton's Andrei Okounkov has received one of this year's Fields Medals, widely considered to be the math world's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The awards for outstanding mathematical achievement were presented earlier today (Aug. 22) at the opening ceremony of the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid.

Okounkov, a professor of mathematics at Princeton since 2002, has been lauded for his ability to find connections between seemingly unrelated fields, such as algebraic geometry in mathematics and statistical mechanics in physics. Andrew Wiles, chair of the mathematics department, said his colleague has a talent for bridging far-flung topics in math. 

"One of his greatest strengths is his amazing versatility," Wiles said. "He works in many different fields of mathematics and succeeds in taking results from one area and applying them in a seemingly quite different field."

Another colleague, Peter Sarnak, said that Okounkov has made breakthrough contributions in a number of fields.

"I would characterize Okounkov as being a very powerful, sophisticated and fast thinker who also has great combinatorial talent and problem-solving skills," said Sarnak, also a professor of mathematics. "This combination is rather unusual."

This year's other winners are Terence Tao of the University of California-Los Angeles, who received his doctorate in mathematics at Princeton in 1996, and Wendelin Werner of the University of Paris-Sud. Famously reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman also was named a winner, but has declined to accept his award.

Fields Medals are awarded every four years to mathematicians no older than 40, and two to four mathematicians can receive them each time they are presented. Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields created the medals, which were first awarded in 1936. Along with a gold medallion inscribed with the winner's name, the awards bring a cash prize of about $13,300.

Okounkov, who was born in Moscow in 1969, received his bachelor's degree and doctorate in mathematics from Moscow State University, and was awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship in 2000. Okounkov also has taught at the University of Chicago and the University of California-Berkeley. He has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, and has been a research fellow in the Dobrushin Mathematical Laboratory at the Institute for Problems of Information Transmission at the Russian Academy of Sciences.