Dr. Manjul Bhargava (Photo by David Kelly Crow for the Office of Communications, Princeton University)
I don’t understand why something already prestigious in its own right has to be called something else that is more famous. For instance, why is the Fields Medal for Mathematics routinely described as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics”? The Fields Medal is already the benchmark of high achievement in mathematics. I don’t think there is any need to embellish it by likening it to a Nobel Prize. One is grateful that the Nobel Prizes are not called the Oscars for nerds.
With that little contention out of my system, I can talk about Princeton University mathematician Manjul Bhargava winning the 2014 Fields Medal. The International Mathematical Union (IMU) has conferred the medal that is announced every four years on researchers under 40. You may ask why every four years and not every year. Well, I don’t know. It could be because the corpus administering the prize does not have enough money to hand out every year. Or it could be that breakthroughs in mathematics are necessarily slow in coming. Or it could also be because the IMU likes even numbers, as in four, and not odd numbers, as in five. The point is I don’t know. (It is amazing that I went off on this one even though no one has actually asked me why every four years.)
I am stretching the opening primarily because unlike physics, which I understand in a very broad sense of the word, I do not understand math in most sense of the word. The citation accompanying the medal for Dr. Bhargava says he has been awarded "for developing powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers, which he applied to count rings of small rank and to bound the average rank of elliptic curves." The media has faithfully quoted the citation without almost anyone explaining what it means.
If it was physics, I would have at least attempted to explain but math is not something I gravitate towards even though pure physics is also pure math. The citation also says that his "work in number theory has had a profound influence on the field. A mathematician of extraordinary creativity, he has a taste for simple problems of timeless beauty, which he has solved by developing elegant and powerful new methods that offer deep insight…. He surely will bring more delights and surprises to mathematics in the years to come." That I understand but since I do not comprehend the first step, it does not help to understand the second one.
The best I can do is to say that what Dr. Bhargava has done is of consequence.
The thing with mathematics is that its magic unfolds at a pace and in ways that test our ever shortening attention span unless someone dilutes it to the levels of ordinary minds. One has to accept the simple reality that there are concepts and ideas in science and math which are necessarily for people of a certain level of intelligence and higher. In that sense, intelligence is not democratic. There is no point dumbing it down so that the multitudes can feel reassured about its relatively low comprehension of certain subjects. If you don’t know what to “bound the average rank of elliptic curves” means, you needn’t despair. There are subjects whose intrinsic abstruseness acts as a powerful filter that keeps the lesser minds out. Science is often a gated community.
Just about now I am feeling amused at the lengths to which I am going to write about Dr. Bhargava’s accomplishment without understanding anything about it. The easiest thing to do would to simply congratulate him and end it. So there. Congratulations, Dr. Bhargava.