Tao has been years ahead of everyone else his entire life. He started taking high school classes at age 8, and by 11, he was learning calculus and entering international mathematics competitions—and performing well in them. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University at 21 and joined the faculty of UCLA's mathematics department the same year, where he was recruited for his exceptional technical power and versatility.
Math has been Tao's passion for as far back as he can remember.
"I always did like numbers," he says. "My parents told me that when I was 2 or 3, I taught other kids how to count with blocks. When I was 5, I remember that I loved playing games with numbers. Of course, there's more to math than manipulating numbers."
Tao's primary branch of mathematics is a theoretical field called harmonic analysis, an advanced form of calculus that uses equations from physics. He also does work in a related field, nonlinear partial differential equations, and in an entirely distinct field, algebraic geometry.
One of Tao's proofs of a perplexing problem in harmonic analysis extends more than 50 pages, in which he and two colleagues obtained the most precise known estimate of the size of a particular geometric dimension in Euclidean space. The issue involved the most space-efficient way to rotate a needle in three dimensions, a question of interest to theoretical mathematicians; Tao and his colleagues provided the best lower limit of any mathematician's.
Raised in Australia, the soft-spoken Tao teaches freshman calculus and graduate courses and has been awarded two national fellowships this year, from the Packard Foundation and the Clay Mathematics Institute. The Clay Institute selected Tao as one of three Long-Term Prize Fellows, along with mathematicians from Harvard and Princeton.
"Maybe when I'm in my 60s, I'll look back at what I've done," says Tao, "but now I would rather work on the problems."