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Biggest Math Prizes: Immigrant Influence Clear in American Academia

Thursday, July 3, 2014

FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Russian Internet billionaire Yuri Milner have teamed up to offer a new academic prize, the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The prize, which carries with it a $3 million windfall for recipients, is now the largest monetary accolade in the field. The first crop of winners was alerted to their good fortune when U.S.-educated Milner – Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania – individually contacted the recipients.  

Among the five inaugural recipients of the prize, four are from U.S. institutions, and one is from France. Two of the four American recipients are immigrants: Simon Donaldson from the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics is from the U.K. and Terence Tao of UCLA was born in Australia. The fact that 40 percent of the inaugural Breakthrough Prize winners are immigrants underscores the importance of immigration to the global standing of U.S. academic institutions and to American STEMM education, which is already lagging the demand for such expertise in the public and private sectors.

Donaldson has done outstanding work in the study of four-dimensional shapes, and the Breakthrough Prize highlights the significance. Meanwhile, the self-effacing Tao – who is famous for being the youngest full professor in the history of UCLA – thought that Milner had made a mistake when he was contacted about the prize. Tao believed he hadn’t yet done enough work to be tapped for such major recognition.

In reality, though, Tao – a former child prodigy -- is a renowned mathematician who is currently working on equations that describe the way in which water and air flow. In addition to applications for engineering and meteorology, Tao’s approach to the problem could be used to study singularities. Expanding on his models, Tao’s research could have further application within Einstein’s general relativity construct to describe the formation of black holes.

The work that the prize-winning mathematicians are doing can be used in fields ranging from physics to economics. Some of the equations and models they’ve developed open the door to new ways of looking at old problems. This type of vision is exactly what regulators need when it comes to immigration reform: an open mind toward solving a problem that could possibly prevent scholars like Tao and Donaldson from working on U.S. soil.

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