This article originally appeared in New Scientist.
Manjul Bhargava has just won a Fields medal, the most coveted prize in mathematics. Now 40, he was one of the youngest people to be made a full professor at Princeton University, at age 28. He explains the link between Rubik's cube and his groundbreaking work in number theory.
Does the Fields medal mean more to you than any other award you have won?
Any award is a milestone, which encourages one to go further. I don’t know that I think of any award as meaning more to me personally than any other. The mathematics that led to the medal was far more exciting to me than the medal itself.
The award citation says that you were inspired to extend Carl Friedrich Gauss’ law of composition in an unusual way. Can you explain what that is, and what you did?
Gauss’ law says that you can compose two quadratic forms, which you can think of as a square of numbers, to get a third square. I was in California in the summer of 1998, and I had a 2-by-2-by-2 mini Rubik’s cube. I was just visualizing putting numbers on each of the corners, and I saw these binary quadratic forms coming out, three of them. I just sat down and wrote out the relations between them. It was a great day!
Have any of your other discoveries had unusual origins?
I do tend to think about things very visually, and the Rubik’s cube is a concrete example of that visual approach. But that one is probably the most unusual and unexpected origin of all.
You have proved several theorems. Do you have a favorite?
Mathematicians often say that choosing a favorite theorem is like choosing one’s favorite child. Although I don’t yet have any children, I understand the sentiment. I enjoyed working on all the theorems I have proved.
Are there any mathematicians, living or dead, that you have particularly looked up to?
My mother [Mira Bhargava, a mathematician at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York] has been a source of inspiration to me from the very beginning. She was always there to answer my questions, to encourage and support me, and she taught me how much the human mind is capable of.
This year a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani at Stanford University, has finally won one of the Fields medals, after 52 consecutive male winners. How do you view this achievement?
This is long overdue! Hopefully in a few years we will not even need to discuss this, as more and more females receive the award. I am honored to be a recipient in the same year as Maryam. It has been a pleasure to know her—we overlapped for a year early in our careers at Harvard, and later at Princeton. Her work is absolutely fantastic. I hope the media will not speak of her only as a top-rate female mathematician, but also as a top-rate mathematician who is doing truly groundbreaking work.
TODAY IN SLATE
Meet the New Bosses
How the Republicans would run the Senate.
The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers
Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.
Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March
Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom
This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059
- Protesters Take to the Streets to Sound Alarm on Climate Change in New York, Across the World
- Knife-Carrying White House Jumper is Vet who Feared “Atmosphere Was Collapsing”
- North Korea: American Sentenced to Hard Labor Wanted to Become “Second Snowden”
- Almost One in Four Americans Support Idea of Splitting From the Union
Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?
A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.