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Terence Tao, Fields Medal Winner

  • By Stuart Wolpert, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Aug 22, 2006 8:00 AM

Terence Tao is UCLA’s first mathematician to receive the prestigious Fields Medal, often described as the "Nobel Prize in Mathematics.”

Tao, 31, was presented the prize today (August 22) at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid. The Fields Medal is awarded by the International Mathematical Union every fourth year.

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Terence Tao

Tao's capture of the Fields Medal surprised few at UCLA.

"Terry is like Mozart; mathematics just flows out of him, except without Mozart’s personality problems,” said John Garnett, professor and former chair of the mathematics department.

"People all over the world say, ‘UCLA’s so lucky to have Terry Tao,'” said Tony Chan, dean of physical sciences and professor of mathematics. "The way he crosses areas would be like the best heart surgeon also being exceptional in brain surgery.”

A math prodigy from Adelaide, Australia, Tao started learning calculus as a 7-year-old high school student. By 9, he had progressed to university-level calculus; by 11, he was already burnishing his reputation at international math competitions. Tao was 20 when he earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University and joined UCLA’s faculty. By 24, he had become a full professor.

"The best students in the world in number theory all want to study with Terry,” Chan said. Graduate students have come to UCLA from as far as Romania and China.

One area in which Tao specializes is harmonic analysis, an advanced form of calculus that uses equations from physics. Some of his work involves "geometrical constructions that almost no one understands,” Garnett said. Tao is also regarded as the world’s expert on the "Kakeya conjecture,” a perplexing set of five problems in harmonic analysis. And his work with Ben Green of the University of Bristol, England - proving that prime numbers contain infinitely many progressions of all finite lengths - was lauded by Discover magazine as one of the 100 most important scientific discoveries in 2004.

"I don’t have any magical ability,” Tao said. "I look at a problem, and it looks something like one I’ve done before. I think maybe the idea that worked before will work here. . . . After awhile, I figure out what’s going on.”

Video for UCLA by Peter Rothenberg