Kurdish-Iranian Refugee Awarded 2018 ‘Fields Medal’ for Mathematics
By Sameen Ahmed Khan
Cauchar Birkar has become the second Iranian, after the late Maryam Mirzakhani, to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in the field of Mathematics, awarded to someone under the age of forty.
Caucher Birkar, a Kurdish refugee in the UK, is one of the four recipients of the 2018 Fields Medals. He was given the award at the 2018 International Congress of Mathematicians, held in August in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The citation for his award released by the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union reads “for the proof of the boundedness of Fano varieties and for contributions to the minimal model program.”
The Fields Medal (in honour of Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields, 1863-1932) is a prize awarded to two, three, or four mathematicians under forty years of age, to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement. The Fields Medal was established in 1936, and since then has been given to sixty persons. The Fields Medal, often called the Nobel Prize for Mathematics, is awarded every four years. Unlike the Nobel Prize, the award money, of US$13,700, is appreciably less.
Birkar was born in July 1978 in Marivan, a Kurdish city in western Iran. Marivan was heavily affected by the eight-year-long Iraqi war on Iran during the 1980s. He grew up in a rural subsistence farming village in an ethnic-Kurdish region in Iran. Birkar recalls his childhood “My parents are farmers, so I spent a huge amount of time actually doing farming,” he says. “In many ways, it was not the ideal place for a kid to get interested in something like mathematics.” He added that while in the middle-school his elder brother Haidar introduced him to more advanced mathematical techniques far beyond the classroom. His curiosity was awakened by algebraic geometry, the same interest that, in that same region centuries earlier, had attracted the attention of greats like Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) and Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi (1135-1213). He obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tehran, Iran in 2000. The same year, he took asylum in the UK. He enrolled in the University of Nottingham and obtained PhD in 2004. He is currently a full professor at the University of Cambridge, UK.
Birkar recalls that at Tehran University he had seen the portraits of past Fields winners and had been inspired to establish himself as a mathematician. “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.”