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This page was published on 18/09/2006
Published: 18/09/2006

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Published: 18 September 2006  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Pure sciencesMathematics  |  Physics
Science in societyPeople in science  |  Science prizes
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European researcher awarded prestigious Fields Medal

The Fields Medal, maths' top prize given every four years, was bestowed in Spain upon a French mathematician of German origin for his research concerning probability theory.

The Fields Medal has been given to the world's brightest mathematicians since 1936. © IMU
The Fields Medal has been given to the world's brightest mathematicians since 1936.
© IMU
Wendelin Werner has been awarded the Fields Medal, often called the “Nobel Prize for mathematics”, during the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Madrid. Mr Werner received the accolade, reserved for researchers under the age of 40, for his work on probability theory and classical complex analysis. Other winners this year included Andrei Okounkov, Grigori Perelman and Terence Tao.

Mr Werner, a German–born French citizen, is a professor and researcher at the Laboratoire de mathématiques of the Orsay Faculty of Science in Paris. His work deals with subjects that are found in the sometimes grey area where maths and physics meet. He was specifically recognised by the ICM for his elaborations on stochastic Loewner evolution, the geometry of two–dimensional Brownian motion and conformal field theory, all areas of relevance to modern physics. One common, real world example of his work can be described as the application of probability theory to the behaviour of water molecules as they enter a transitional phase when going from liquid to vapour.

Even though physicists have developed theories in recent years concerning phenomena in such states, it wasn't until the work of Mr Werner and his collaborators that a mathematically rigorous approach was developed that provides a direct geometric picture of systems under such conditions.

“One aspect of our work has been to develop new mathematical concepts and ideas that allowed to get some new insight and to prove the physicists' predictions,” he was quoted as saying after receiving his prize.

Because his work was done in close cooperation with others in the maths community, Mr Werner was quick to acknowledge his colleagues' contribution.

“My first thought was that this prize was for my work, and since a lot of this work was done in collaboration with Greg Lawler and Oded Schramm, that this medal was also theirs (even if I am the only one under the age limit).”

The prize is open to young scientists as a way of fostering new and innovative research. Being aware of this, Mr Werner wondered how the award would affect his work in the future.

“It looks like a big responsibility for me and maybe a little bit of pressure to deliver nice things. I may want to tackle too difficult problems and end up being stuck...,” he said.

As for reflections on the more immediate future, “I also wonder if it will change the way students will listen in my lectures.”

The ICM received an unusual amount of press this year thanks to Russian Grigory Perelman, who declined his own Fields Medal. It is widely believed that Mr Perelman has solved one of mathematics' great mysteries, the Poincare conjecture.

Mr Werner will add his Fields Medal to a distinguished list of honours he has received throughout his career. His has also been awarded the European Mathematical Society Prize (2000), the Fermat Prize (2003), the Loève Prize (2005) and the Polya Prize (2006).

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