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Former refugee goes on to win one of mathematics most prestigious awards

Professor Birkar Photo: University of Cambridge

If you've ever seen the Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting - you might have heard of a prestigious award called the Fields Medal.

Now the University of Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar has been named one of four recipients of the 2018 Fields medals.

Professor Birkar, a former Kurdish refugee, was awarded the medal at a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil yesterday.

"I hope it put a smile on the face of 40 million people" - Prof Birkar Credit: University of Cambridge

The Fields medals, often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics, are awarded every four years. Medallists must be under the age of 40 by the start of the year they receive the award, with up to four mathematicians honoured at a time. Awarded for the first time in 1936, the medal is recognition for works of excellence and an incentive for new outstanding achievements.

Prof Birkar, is a member of Cambridge’s Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, and won the award for his work on categorising different kinds of polynomial equations.

“War-ridden Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics I'm hoping that this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people.”

– Prof Birkar

Birkar, was born in 1978 in Marivan, a Kurdish province in Iran bordering Iraq with about 200,000 inhabitants. His curiosity was awakened by algebraic geometry, the same interest that, in that same region, centuries earlier, had attracted the attention of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) and Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi (1135-1213).

After graduating in Mathematics from Tehran University, Birkar went to live in the UK, where he became a British citizen.

11
Number of Fields Medals winners from the University of Cambridge

"“This is absolutely phenomenal, both for Caucher and for mathematics at Cambridge. Caucher was already an exceptional young researcher when he came to Cambridge, and he's now one of the most remarkable people in this field. At Cambridge, we want to give all of our young researchers the opportunity to really explore their field early in their career: it can lead to some truly amazing things.”

– Professor Gabriel Paternain, Head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics

In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Birkar spoke of the math club at Tehran University, where pictures of Fields medallists lined the walls. “I looked at them and said to myself, ‘Will I ever meet one of these people?’ At that time in Iran, I couldn’t even know that I’d be able to go to the West.

“To go from the point that I didn’t imagine meeting these people to the point where someday I hold a medal myself — I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true.”

Though the big day was marred a little with reports that Prof Birkar's medal was stolen shortly after it was awarded to him. The medal is worth arounf £3,000. Police have identified two suspects.