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Wednesday, August 19, 1998 Published at 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK


British academics win top maths awards

The International Congress is being held in Berlin

Two professors from the University of Cambridge have received prestigious Fields Medals from their fellow mathematicians.

Richard Borcherds, 38, and Tim Gowers, 34, are among four winners announced at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin.

The awards are named after the Canadian mathematician Joseph Fields. They are awarded only to academics under the age of 40 - the idea being to encourage further work.

The awards are often referred to as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics. They have been made every four years since 1936.

Only four British mathematicians have previously been honoured.

Prof Gowers, a fellow of Trinity College, said: "I'm thrilled to get the medal. Every young mathematician dreams of it, but nobody admits to taking seriously the idea that it might happen to them.

[ image: The medal - showing Archimedes - is named after the secretary of the 1924 Congress]
The medal - showing Archimedes - is named after the secretary of the 1924 Congress
"It's too early to say what effect it will have on my life, but I imagine it will be considerable."

He has been awarded the honour for his work on applying "new combinatorial methods to solve problems in the Banach Spaces and probabilistic number theory".

His colleague, Prof Borcherds, is honoured for "initiating a whole new field of study in algebra, called Vertex Algebras".

Professor John Coates, one of the judges for the awards, said: "The Fields Medal embraces all areas of mathematical research, and is the highest of all mathematical honours.

"With such intense competition, it's remarkable for one country, let alone one institution, to win two medals. Professors Borcherds and Gowers are unquestionably amongst the finest mathematicians in the world."

The Cabinet Minister with special responsibility for science and technology, Peter Mandelson, welcomed the awards.

"These awards speak for the continuing vigour of British mathematics, and I hope they will inspire more of our young people to pursue the subject at school and university," he said.

The other two medal winners are Maxim Kontsevich, a professor at the Institute des Hautes Études Scientific in France, an expert in the so-called "string theory" and quantum field theory, and Curtis T. McMullen, visiting professor at Harvard University in the United States, awarded a medal primarily for his work in the fields of geometry and "complex dynamics" or chaos theory.

Number lecture

Another British mathematician features in what the organisers of the congress regard as a high point of their programme. Andrew Wiles, who teaches at Princeton University in the United States, is giving a lecture on developments in number theory over the last 20 years.

Four years ago, Prof Wiles was a hot favourite for an award after presenting a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem - one of the most famous mathematical puzzles, which had remained unsolved for more than 350 years.

But colleagues had found a gap in the proof which Wiles was only able to resolve a year later. By then it was too late for him to be awarded a Fields Medal, because he was over the age limit. This year he has been given a special prize in recognition of his work.

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