Kurdish refugee wins equivalent of Nobel for Maths, to have it stolen in minutes

Birkar gained asylum & citizenship in Britain before being established as a brilliant mathematician

Kurdish refugee-turned-Cambridge University math professor Caucher Birkar was among four winners this Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro of the prestigious Fields prize, dubbed the Nobel for mathematics, but had his gold medal stolen minutes later.

It was an embarrassing debut for crime-ridden Rio, the first Latin American city ever to host the Fields ceremony, which takes place every four years.

Less than an hour had passed since Birkar, a 40-year-old specialist in algebraic geometry, had been handed his 14-karat gold medal when his briefcase went missing. The organizer behind the event, the International Congress of Mathematics, said it "profoundly regrets" the incident.

Birkar celebrated his achievement — alongside co-winners Alessio Figalli, Peter Scholze and Akshay Venkatesh — as a fairy tale come true for the often beleaguered Kurds. "I'm hoping this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people," he said.

Born in a village in the ethnic Kurdish province of Marivan, near the Iran-Iraq border, Birkar said "Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics."

Despite that, he went from Tehran University, where he recounts having looked up dreamily at portraits of past Fields winners, to get political asylum and citizenship in Britain — and establish himself as an exceptional mathematical mind.

Kurdish refugee wins equivalent of Nobel for Maths, to have it stolen in minutes

Caucher Birkar, Alessio Figalli, Peter Scholze and Akshay Venkatesh (from Kurdistan, Italy, Germany and India, respectively), winners of the Fields Medals Award for math, the most prestigious prize in the field, at the International Congress of Mathematicians 2018 in Rio de Janeiro on 1 August. AFP

The Fields medal recognizes the outstanding mathematical achievements of candidates who were under 40 years old at the start of the year. At least two and preferably four people are honored each time.

Akshay Venkatesh, the fourth awardee, is an Indian-born and Australian-raised prodigy who began his undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics at the University of Western Australia when he was just 13.

Now 36, and at Stanford University in the United States, Venkatesh specializes in number theory and describes his work in terms more often associated with the artistic fields.

"A lot of the time, when you do math, you're stuck. But you feel privileged to work with it: you have a feeling of transcendence and feel like you've been part of something really meaningful," Venkatesh said.

In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani from Iran, became the award's first and so far only female winner for her research in theoretical mathematics. She died in 2017 after having battled breast cancer for a long time.

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