Most of us have enough computing power in our pockets these days to render the work of many of history’s mathematical magicians the work of a few seconds. But, much of the modern world is built on math in its many varieties – statistics, geometry, algebra and many more complex branches – and without it your house would fall down, your car wouldn’t run and girls in eastern Europe wouldn’t be able to send you Facebook messages telling you how much they love your profile and that you should really start talking.
We’ll let you know if math ever becomes as sexy as it should be – about 100 times sexier than sports stars, pop musicians and social media gurus – but till then why not just marvel at these seven giants of the world of numbers.
1 – Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman (born 1966)
Photos of Mr Perelman show a man who looks like he’d be equally at home in an Orthodox monastery as a great academic institution and the Russian mathematical giant has fallen out with the world he could dominate and now lives, unemployed, at home with his mum.
Despite his hatred of prizes, the mathematical world has attempted to shower him with them, most of which he has turned down and belittled. He’s an expert in Riemannian geometry and geometric topology and was responsible for solving the most important open question in his field, the Poincare conjecture, which had been sitting waiting for a genius to come up with an answer since 1904 until Perelman came along in 2004.
He was spotted as a high-flyer from a young age and hot-housed in the best Soviet fashion until he became a world-wide legend. Typically of this man he turned down big US jobs to return to research in St Petersburg.
He’s been offered the Field’s Medal, one of the most prestigious prizes in mathematics, but turned it down, not wanting to become ‘like an animal in the zoo’. He was then put up for a Millennium Prize worth $1 million and said sod off to that judging panel too, taking a swipe at the whole world of mathematics in the process. In 2003 he turned his back on mathematics, but is now believed to be working on his own, at home with mom.
2 – Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010)
Chances are you’ve seen some fractals. If at any time you’ve been involved in the drug-soaked world of raves you certainly have. If you haven’t take a look on YouTube – steel yourself for some ambient music – they’re really stunning to look at. More importantly, they help computers work, make your cell phone pick up a signal, help make pretty computer pictures in movies and games and have fundamentally altered our understanding of the world of nature.
Born in Poland, Mandelbrot – who was Jewish – was forced by the Nazis to flee with his family to France and after the war headed further west to the United States and started studying in earnest. By the end of the 50s he had hooked up with IBM and was using their computers to design the images that became fractals – he wanted to prove that nature’s seemingly random and undersigned beauty (things like clouds and shorelines) did in fact have an order to them.
He has an asteroid named after him and was awarded dozens of prizes, and thousands of stoned students staring at screens thank him every day.
3 – Terry Tao (born 1975)
Terry Tao may well be a natural born genius. He certainly started early and was spotted as a prodigy and was doing degree-level study from the age of nine, by the age of 24 he was a professor (the youngest ever) at UCLA after moving from his native Australia.
His prizes are too numerous to list here, but top of the tree is his Fields Medal he won in 2006. The citation lists contributions to ‘partial differential equations, combinatorics, harmonic analysis and additive number theory’.
Tao’s natural ability and steady flow of new discoveries have led to him being called the Mozart of Mathematics, but Tao himself (and you can follow his blog) insists solving the world’s toughest math problems is a very logical process with no Eureka moments.
At the moment, Tao’s work is largely in the world of theory and has little application, but in time it almost certainly will prove vital to some other area of science or technology.
4 – Andrew Wiles (born 1953)
The legendary problem was left by Pierre de Fermat in 1637 along with a note that he had a proof to his problem but no room to write it down. In the following centuries the best mathematicians in the world tried to match what Fermat had claimed. Wiles’ interest in math was stimulated by the idea of this unsolved problem, which he first came across aged 10.
Rather like Tao, his work is so advanced (very few mathematicians knew enough to even check his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem) that it awaits the arrival of uses. However, the solving of this famous riddle has made him one of the most famous mathematicians in the world, featuring in a couple of rock songs, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and some of Stieg Larsson’s thrillers.
5 – John Tate (born 1925)
His work has had major implications in the mathematical world. He helped found the theory of automorphic forms and he was a big noise in number theory. His name is scattered across a range of theories and proofs as a measure of his influence.
The Abel Prize was awarded for “”his vast and lasting impact on the theory of numbers”, crediting Tate with a “conspicuous imprint on modern mathematics.”
6 – James Maxwell (1831 – 1879)
Crossing the boundary between mathematics and physics, James Maxwell’s most important work came up with electromagnetism – work that has a huge impact on the modern world.
He came up with his proofs in 1865, showing that both electrical and magnetic fields are zooming around at the speed of light.
Incredibly, he was dismissed as slow by his first tutor, but after moving to the best school in Edinburgh (his family wasn’t short of money) he had published his first paper by the time he was 14.
His interests were wide-ranging, and we can add the first color photograph – from 1861 – to his achievements in electromagnetics. He also worked on gases and structural problems.
Although he was said to be socially awkward, he also loved writing his own poetry which he sang to his own guitar accompaniment.
7 – Leonhard Euler (1707 – 1783)
Euler is a giant of mathematics, rated by many as the greatest ever, and churned out work at an extraordinary rate, most of it extraordinarily brilliant.
He was born in Switzerland but spent much of life in Russia where Peter the Great was busy trying to bring his country up to educational speed. In his spare time Euler also worked as a navy doctor. He later moved to Berlin, but fell out with his colleagues and returned to St Petersburg where he was to die of a brain hemorrhage suffered during a discussion about Uranus.
His work was extraordinarily broad, covering algebra, geometry, calculus and number theory as well as physics. He has two numbers named after him, a unique distinction. Euler’s work is the foundation of much modern mathematics and he also put his enormous brain to work looking at music, astrology and engineering.
A towering genius whose work is worthy of further reading.