The Fields Medals are the most prestigious awards in mathematics, equivalent in some ways to the Nobel prizes. They have been awarded every four years since 1950, although the award itself was established in 1936. The medals come with cash prizes of 15,000 euros, although it is the accolade and recognition of outstanding work that is the most important part.
The Fields Medals have been given to young researchers under forty years of age and to be awarded such a prize before you have left your thirties (or even twenties) is a remarkable achievement. In 2010 a new award was added, the Chern Medal Award, for lifetime achievement. The Chern Award comes with a prize of 500,000 euros, with the stipulation that half of this be donated to causes of the recipients choosing.
Including the Chern award, 7 prizes were awarded this year. The four Fields Medals went to Elon Lindenstrauss of Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Ngô Bo Châu of Université Paris-Sud in France; Stanislav Smirnov of the University of Geneva and Cédric Villani of the Henri Poincaré Institute in Paris. The Chern Medal went to Louis Nirenberg of New York University. The two other medals, the Gauss Prize and the Nevanlinna Prize, were given to Yves Meyer, of the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan in France and Daniel Spielman of Yale University respectively.
Elon Lindenstrauss was recognised for advances in the study of the statistical behaviour of dynamic systems and how it applied to number theory.
Ngô Bo Châu’s work was in number theory also and he provided the proof for a long standing conjecture known as the Fundamental Lemma proposition.
Stanislav Smirnov’s research had nothing to do with the behaviour of vodka. He was using mathematics within statistical physics. He provided proofs for another two long standing conjectures in this area.
Cédric Villani was also connecting mathematics and physics, in particular with regards to the fascinating area of physical entropy. He also worked on applying his understanding of it to problems in physics.
Unless you are a mathematician yourself you might struggle to understand exactly what these brilliant young scientists discovered. However while mathematicians are often dealing with, sometimes beautiful, abstract theory this doesn’t mean there are no practical applications. Their discoveries are of enormous importance in areas such as physics and computer science.