June Huh wins MacArthur ‘genius’ grant for creative approaches to mathematical puzzles
June Huh, a professor of mathematics at Princeton University who won the 2022 Fields Medal earlier this year, has been awarded a 2022 MacArthur Fellowship for “discovering underlying connections between disparate areas of mathematics and proving long-standing mathematical conjectures.”
Huh is one of 25 MacArthur Fellows in the 2022 cohort, a group of mathematicians, scientists, artists, scholars and activists who each receive $800,000 no-strings-attached grants over a five-year period. The fellowships, known informally as “MacArthur genius grants,” recognize people who have demonstrated “exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits.”
“June Huh is a rare and distinctive talent with an inspiring combination of mathematical genius and creativity,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “All of us at Princeton are thrilled that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized this extraordinary scholar, and we look forward to what he will do in the future.”
“With his innovative approach and fruitful collaborations with others, Huh is reinvigorating the field of geometric combinatorics and inspiring a new generation of mathematicians,” the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation said in its announcement.
Princeton graduate alum Melanie Matchett Wood, who completed her Ph.D. in mathematics in 2009 and is now at Harvard, also received a MacArthur Fellowship, for “addressing foundational questions in number theory from the perspective of arithmetic statistics.”
'The greatest ideas reveal themselves as we interact with each other'
Huh expressed his gratitude “to my teachers, friends and collaborators. They are the source of all my mathematical outputs. As I grow older, I am becoming more convinced that the greatest ideas reveal themselves as we interact with each other.”
The new MacArthur Fellow said he almost didn’t pick up the phone when the MacArthur Foundation called to say he had been selected. “I rarely pick up phone calls unless they are from my family or the school nurse,” Huh said.
When he did pick up, he missed the initial part of the call where the speaker introduced herself. “My first lecture was about to start, and I'm typically very slow in shifting my attention,” he said. After the caller mentioned the grant amount, “I thought, ‘Either she's the most intelligent scammer I've ever heard, or I have some surprising news for my wife!'”
Huh is known for proving long-standing mathematical conjectures by building bridges between different branches of math, especially combinatorics and algebraic geometry. Algebraic geometry involves the properties of geometric structures — like curves or surfaces — that are described using polynomial equations.
Combinatorics concerns counting, arranging and combining sets of elements within a discrete system. For example, how many ways can five people arrange themselves around a round table? Most mathematicians consider algebraic geometry and combinatorics distinct, almost unrelated branches of mathematics, but Huh saw how these widely different fields could answer each other’s long-standing questions.
While still in graduate school, Huh proved Read’s conjecture, a problem in graph theory first proposed in 1968. He used methods from algebraic geometry to prove what had long been considered a combinatorics problem.
His collaborations have since reached in many directions. “Almost all my works are joint endeavors,” he said. “In the old days, math was done alone in a dark room. Nowadays, we talk to each other and we write together, solve problems and build structures together.”
Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. Two years later, the family moved to Seoul, South Korea, where his father taught statistics and his mother taught Russian literature. As a child, Huh liked puzzles and logic games, but he didn’t like mathematics as it was taught in school.
He pursued various interests, including poetry and nonfiction writing, and he was most of the way through an undergraduate degree in astronomy at Seoul National University when famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka visited Seoul.
Huh had been considering a career in science writing, and when he read Hironaka’s autobiography, he thought the elderly scholar would make a fascinating article subject. Hironaka had come to Seoul in hopes of having some quiet time to tackle a mathematical challenge, but he had agreed to teach an introductory course on algebraic geometry.
“I attended the course without knowing or caring about any of the content of the course,” Huh said. “But it was fascinating just to see him perform. He would say, ‘Oh, I have this idea. Let’s see what happens.’ He would almost always fail, but it transformed my perception of what mathematics is. I got really hooked, because this was the first time I saw mathematics as an activity. Before this, mathematics was something done by someone who lived 200 years ago, in a place I’ve never been.
“Nobody dared to ask him a question or talk to him or interact in any way with him. So Professor Hironaka got exactly what he wanted: complete solitude for his intensive research period — until I approached him.
“I prepared a bunch of questions. I didn’t know a lot of mathematics then, so they were philosophical, advice type questions from reading his autobiography. We started having lunches together at the university cafeteria, and then he would tell me stories or teach me mathematics — little by little, in a completely disordered fashion. I was hooked.”
Huh completed his B.S., then stayed at Seoul National for his M.S. in mathematics, primarily working under Hironaka’s direction. During the holidays, he went to Kyoto and Tokyo with Hironaka, where he stayed with the mathematician and his wife. At his mentor’s suggestion, Huh came to the U.S. for his Ph.D.; he started at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, then finished his degree at the University of Michigan.
Huh had a series of fellowships and visiting professorships, including multiple stints at the Institute for Advanced Study, during which he taught courses at Princeton University before formally joining the Princeton faculty in 2021.
Huh has won many honors and awards, including the Fields Medal (2022), the Simons Investigator Award (2021), the New Horizons in Mathematics Prize from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation (2019) and a Clay Research Fellowship (2014). He also serves as editor for multiple mathematical journals, and he has given many invited lectures, including at the 2018 International Congress of Mathematicians.
Graduate MacArthur winner: Melanie Matchett Wood
Wood investigates foundational questions in pure mathematics. She specializes in number theory (the properties and relationships of whole numbers) and algebraic geometry. She, too, combines a breadth of mathematical approaches, in Wood's case to reveal new ways to see fundamental properties of numbers.
“Numbers and their properties are one of the most ancient and universal interests of humanity,” she told the MacArthur Foundation. “Yet numbers hold more secrets that we are still working to reveal. Unlocking these mysteries requires new perspectives and often happens when we discover surprising connections between different parts of mathematics.”
Wood received her B.S. (2003) from Duke University and a Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics (2004) from the University of Cambridge before earning her 2009 doctoral degree from Princeton. She was a researcher with the American Institute of Mathematics (2009–2017) and held faculty positions at Stanford University (2009–2011), the University of Wisconsin at Madison (2011–2019), and the University of California at Berkeley (2019–2020). In 2020, she became a professor at Harvard University and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
MacArthur Fellows are nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and considered by an anonymous selection committee.