VIENNA, Austria – Brazilian mathematician Artur Avila was named winner of the 2015 TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize on Wednesday for his research solving daunting mathematical mysteries such as how chaos emerges from simplicity. The award, one of the most prestigious honours given to scientists from the developing world, was announced here in a special ceremony during the yearly General Meeting of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).
Avila’s work has helped resolve some major mathematical quandaries and helped to bring a global awareness of the quality of mathematical research in Brazil. He also won the Fields Medal in 2014 and the TWAS Prize for Mathematics in 2013.
"Artur Avila is clearly an exceptional talent in the world of mathematics," said TWAS President Bai Chunli. "But he also is a symbol of the remarkable creativity that we can find among young researchers in the developing world. At TWAS, we are proud of our links to this scholar, and we are confident that he has many more years of important work ahead of him."
See more news from the 26th TWAS General Meeting in Vienna, Austria
The annual prize includes an award of USD100,000 provided by Lenovo, the global leader in consumer, commercial and enterprise technology and the largest PC company in the world.
"I am very impressed by Dr. Artur Avila's achievements and contributions to his specialty areas such as dynamical systems and analysis," said Senior Vice President George He. "And I equally admire his collaborative spirit in working with peers around the globe to conquer world-class open mathematics problems. As a China-rooted global company, Lenovo knows well the power of globalization and believes this holds true for business as well as science. I am glad to see more and more young talents like Dr. Avila from developing countries originally are playing increasingly important roles in the arena of science today."
At the age of 36, Avila is already one of mathematics’ most prominent problem solvers. Among his major accomplishments was a landmark work in dynamical systems — a branch of mathematics that studies how complex and seemingly chaotic behavior can arise over time from simple systems. Through his work, mathematicians now have a proof that can describe, for example, how a population of organisms will grow or decline over time. Other examples of dynamical systems include the rules that govern the motions of planets or long-term bouncing of a billiard ball.
Avila said it was an honour to receive the prize, and that it sends a message about the quality of mathematics being done in the developing world. He hopes it will help inspire mathematically gifted young people in developing countries to pursue research in pure mathematics, even though such a career can often seem out-of-reach.
Avila said the international recognition from honours such as the TWAS-Lenovo Prize and the Fields Medal is also good for Brazil. It demonstrates that Brazilian mathematics is world-class, and also shows the public the value of supporting even the purest research.
“Whenever we have such a prize, it gives us something to show to the larger public,” Avila said, “to show that we are doing good mathematics in Brazil."
How exposure can spark a career
Avila’s parents were among those who had never heard of a career in pure mathematics. But Avila took strongly to the subject in school as a child while struggling mightily in other subjects. A teacher saw his potential, and encouraged him at age 13 to enter the Mathematical Olympiad. He excelled, and two years later went to the International Mathematical Olympiad in Toronto, Canada, where he won a gold medal.
Just as importantly, Avila said, the Olympiad exposed him to researchers from Brazil’s Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA), and he was inspired to join them someday as a mathematician himself. Avila still does much of his research work as a fellow at IMPA, splitting his time between IMPA in Rio De Janeiro and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, where he is a research director.
A great many people, especially in developing nations, don’t even think of mathematics as a potential career, he said, and the field thus loses out on the pool of potential talent.
“It’s not on the spectrum of possibilities for many people,” said Avila. “People have their talents, and people that might be attracted to mathematics, you can’t just expect them to be, say, a biologist. People start in math for several reasons. They’re not necessarily thinking of the applications.”
Avila’s research also includes work on the dynamics of points in one dimension. This includes elements of mathematics that describe the movements of subatomic particles in models for quasicrystals, materials that have a more orderly molecular structure than a liquid, but less than a crystal. One of the questions solved by Avila is tied to the behavior of electrons in quasicrystals. It had been considered so difficult that late Polish mathematician Mark Kac had dubbed it the “Ten Martini Problem”, offering 10 martinis to anyone who could solve it.
These are just some of accomplishments celebrated last year when Avila became the first Brazilian to win the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal.
“Artur Avila has made outstanding contributions to dynamical systems, analysis, and other areas, in many cases proving decisive results that solved long-standing open problems,” said the International Mathematical Union, which awards the Fields Medal, after the prize was announced. “Nearly all his work has been done through collaborations with some 30 mathematicians around the world. To these collaborations Avila brings formidable technical power, the ingenuity and tenacity of a master problem-solver, and an unerring sense for deep and significant questions.”
Avila’s work is purely conceptual. But it could have untold ripple effects throughout any number of scientific fields. Discoveries in pure, theoretical mathematics can later be used by applied mathematicians, which in turn can be used across many fields, from engineering to chemistry. So part of the excitement of Avila’s discoveries is that we may some day see how they become useful in day-to-day life.
“A lot of mathematicians, and particularly the kind of research that I do, is not with direct applications in mind. We do research not particularly likely to lead to direct applications,” he explained. “Even the purest mathematics still has consequences. Everything’s connected in the mathematics world.”
This is the third year of the TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize, the successor to The Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize that ran for eight years. During its first four-year cycle (2013-2016), the TWAS-Lenovo Prize subject is focusing on the basic sciences, with the subject area changing each year: physics and astronomy in 2013; biological sciences in 2014; mathematics in 2015; and chemical sciences in 2016.
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The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – works to advance sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has some 1,150 elected Fellows from 90 countries; 16 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) administers TWAS funds and personnel. Follow TWAS on Facebook or Twitter (@TWASnews) or visit the Academy's website at www.twas.org.