February 28, 2019, by jicke

From Kurdistan to Nottingham – celebrating top Maths honour

Celebrating the Fields Medal awarded to Nottingham’s former  PhD student Caucher Birkar – the medal is the highest honour in mathematics and the first such medal awarded to a UK mathematician in the last 20 years

The University of Nottingham has recognised the remarkable achievements of PhD alumnus, Caucher Birkar, who studied at the university after escaping the brutal war between Iraq and Iran. Last year he was awarded the Fields Medal for his contributions to algebraic geometry.

Caucher Birkar grew up in the Kurdish region of western Iran in a rural subsistence farming village and is now a Professor of Mathematics in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, at the University of Cambridge. In his final year as an undergraduate at the University of Tehran, Caucher Birkar came to England where he sought political asylum.

The Fields Medal and the Abel Prize are the highest international trophies in Mathematics, similar to the Nobel Prize in other sciences. A newsletter of the London Mathematical Society reads: “Birkar is the first UK home educated mathematician awarded the Fields Medals in the past 20 years and the first to be educated outside Oxbridge and London!”. His success is also recognised on the streets of Kurdistan where ten-metre-high pictures of him have been put up.

Caucher studied at Nottingham under the supervision of Ivan Fesenko, Professor of Pure Mathematics in the School of Mathematics. Professor Fesenko said: “Caucher’s story is quite extraordinary. He came from Kurdistan to live in in Nottingham whilst he waited for a decision about his asylum application from the Home Office. He was so passionate about striving to learn cutting edge mathematics that he almost immediately came to our maths department and asked me for a supervision of his work. I recommended some books for him to read and set an ambitious research project for his PhD years which I thought would take quite a time for him to implement. He came with its solution in three months, instead of usual three years! We then helped him to attend workshops and meet international researchers. Caucher met with and started to collaborate with Professor Slava Shokurov from Johns Hopkins University. We were delighted to apply our best efforts to help him to grow, with encouragement and support. While here in Nottingham, Caucher was awarded the London Math Society grant as the most promising UK PhD student in Mathematics, and then the EPSRC postdoc fellowship, and soon came his first famous breakthrough.”

At a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro last year, Caucher was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, an honour presented every four years by the International Mathematical Union to the world’s most accomplished mathematicians. Unfortunately, several minutes later during the ceremony the award was stolen. Caucher was then awarded with a replacement medal – making him the first mathematician to have ever been awarded the Fields Medal twice!

Nurturing Talent

Professor Fesenko said: “Caucher is an incredibly hard-working researcher. He concentrates very deeply during his study. I remember I gave him a key from a committee meetings room so that he could use a very quiet room for his work when no committee meetings were taking place. Since his PhD years in Nottingham, Caucher has been regularly visiting our research group to give talks on his ongoing research work. We’re most delighted to be welcoming him back to Nottingham for this special event to celebrate his inspirational achievement. The Pythagoras theorem was proved 2500 years ago and is still remembered. Mathematical achievements are among the longest to live, they reflect something very important in our civilizations and they are based on fundamental understanding of underlying beauty of mathematical structures, often very hidden like a great treasure. Caucher has been very successful in finding such treasures which will be remembered for centuries.

Nottingham celebration

On Tuesday 26 February 2019 the University of Nottingham marked his achievements with a special reception attended by Professor Caucher Birkar, his family and the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Nottingham, Professor Shearer West.

Professor Fesenko and Birkar talked about the PhD years of Caucher in Nottingham. Professor Birkar answered dozens of questions. In particular, he explained that his medal is the first positive news for the Kurdish people in the last 100 years and he plans to help to promote scientific work and activities in the Middle East. Professor Ivan Cheltsov from University of Edinburgh presented his entertaining talk on the mathematics of Caucher’s work.

Nurturing and supporting future leaders in science is a distinctive feature of the University of Nottingham. We would like more of our PhD students, here in Nottingham and elsewhere in the UK, to reach the stars in their journeys for knowledge, and we are here to support them!”

Caucher came to Nottingham in October 2001 and graduated in December 2004. His PhD – Non standard Alegebraic Geometry – Shokurov’s Log Flips – Boundedness of E-lc Complements – was funded by the EPSRC.

Posted in AlumniAwards and accoladesInternationalScienceStaff