January 21, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 8

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    Math department welcomes latest addition to its stellar team of recruits

    [ridgeway scott, alexander 'sasha' beilinson, and nikolai nadirashvili], by jason smith

    Ridgway Scott (left to right, above), Alexander "Sasha" Beilinson and Nikolai Nadirashvili arrived last quarter to begin their faculty appointments in the University's Mathematics Department. Vladimir Drinfeld arrived on campus from Ukraine in December 1998.

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    The Chicago Mathematics Department is sending tremors through the world’s mathematics community.

    “I’m not sure that any Mathematics Department in the last quarter century has had the recruiting year that ours has had,” said David Oxtoby, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division.

    The department hired four new faculty members last year––Alexander “Sasha” Beilinson, Nikolai Nadirashvili, Ridgway Scott and 1990 Fields Medalist Vladimir Drinfeld, who arrived on campus from Ukraine in late December 1998.

    “No. Oh, no. Oh, that’s terrible,” jested Barry Mazur, professor of mathematics at Harvard University, upon learning that Drinfeld had accepted a position at Chicago. “It’s a wonderful appointment.”

    Mazur said he regards Drinfeld and Beilinson as Russia’s two most influential mathematicians.

    “There’s no question that Chicago has achieved a great coup there. These are great mathematicians,” Mazur said.

    A Fields Medal is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in mathematics, according to Robert Fefferman, Chairman of the Mathematics Department and the Louis Block Professor in Mathematics. The medals are awarded to no fewer than two and no more than four mathematicians under the age of 40 every four years at the International Congress of Mathematicians. Fefferman called Drinfeld “one of the greatest algebraists in the world.”

    Yuri Manin, director of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany, offered an equally strong assessment.

    “Drinfeld’s work deeply influenced the world of mathematics of the last two decades,” said Manin, who served as Drinfeld’s and Beilinson’s Ph.D. thesis adviser at Moscow University in the 1980s and was the chairman of the Fields Prize Committee at the Berlin ICM 1998. “Several research monographs, Seminar Notes and hundreds of papers were dedicated to the two new chapters of mathematics created by him––the so-called Drinfeld modules and quantum groups.”

    At 41, Beilinson no longer is eligible for the Fields Medal. Nevertheless, “his mathematical achievements are on the level of those of the most renowned Fields Medalists,” Manin said. The influence of Beilinson’s work extends into representation theory, arithmetical geometry and modern mathematical physics, said Manin.

    Beilinson holds the prestigious first David and Mary Winton Green University Professorship in Mathematics. Since 1989, Beilinson largely has spent fall semesters teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a professor of mathematics and working the rest of the year as a researcher at the Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics in Chernogolovka, Russia.

    “There are several people here whose research is very close to mine and who inspired it in a sense, and so I wish to work with them,” Beilinson said. He was referring to Spencer Bloch, the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics, and Victor Ginzburg, Robert Kottwitz and Madhav Nori, Professors in Mathematics. “People here would like to create something new,” Beilinson said. “It’s very nice to come to a place that hopefully will create something wonderful when everything is moving.”

    Beilinson also collaborates with Drinfeld, whom he has known for more than two decades.

    Nadirashvili, Professor in Mathematics, and Scott, Professor in Mathematics and Computer Science, complete what Oxtoby has called a historic recruiting year for Chicago’s Mathematics Department.

    Indeed, said Fefferman, “many mathematicians around the world are very impressed and even amazed by the appointments we are making here––they are really superb.”

    Nadirashvili comes to Chicago from Moscow’s Institute for Information Transmissions Problems, where two Fields Medalists maintain affiliations. But Nadirashvili has spent much of the 1990s visiting Europe’s mathematical research institutes. He made stops at the University of Bielifeld in Germany (1990-92), the Institute of Mathematical Physics in Vienna (1993 and 1996), the French Institute for Advanced Studies near Paris (1995) and Switzerland’s version of MIT, the Swiss Technical University in Zurich (1997-98).

    Said Fefferman, “Nadirashvili is an outstanding mathematical analyst, one of the greatest experts in the world on elliptic partial differential equations, both linear and nonlinear.

    “He has come up with some absolutely extraordinary counterexamples to show that the things all of us thought were true are not true. This is a very brilliant mathematician who has done important and surprising work.”

    Nadirashvili said joining the Chicago faculty enables him to work with Fefferman and Carlos Kenig, Peter Constantin and Raghavan Narasimhan, Professors in Mathematics, whom Nadirashvili regards as the top scholars in his field of analysis.

    The campus itself, which Nadirashvili said reminds him of Europe’s Oxford and Heidelberg universities, also appealed to him. “I very much like the campus. It’s so beautiful,” he said. “I appreciate its traditional spirit.”

    Scott, a member of the Chicago faculty from 1973 to 1975, returns to continue his academic career as a mathematician at the University. Now he is a computer scientist as well as an outstanding applied mathematician, said Todd Dupont, Professor in Computer Science and Mathematics. “He has developed into a leader in biological computing.”

    Before returning to Chicago this year, Scott directed the Texas Center for Advanced Molecular Computation and held the M.D. Anderson chair in computer science and mathematics at the University of Houston.

    Scott and Dupont are among the two dozen Chicago scientists who are studying the physics of exploding stars at the University’s new Center on Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes.

    “It’s difficult to get this very broad collection of scientists to think about a single problem in a productive way,” Dupont said. “Scott’s playing an important role in that because he’s an expert in several of the areas that are essential to this project.”

    Scott was educated at Tulane University and MIT, but it is no coincidence Chicago’s other newest mathematics faculty members are alumni of Moscow University.

    “It was one of the glories of the world,” said Mazur. “It produced, I don’t know how, top-notch mathematicians at an incredible rate. Their good mathematicians would begin doing very high-level mathematics when they were relatively young, and they have a longevity that is remarkable.”

    But Moscow University’s mathematics program has experienced a decline in recent years, with many of its young faculty members working abroad, either temporarily or permanently, Nadirashvili said.

    Said Beilinson, “The undergraduate education at Moscow State University is still reasonable but not the graduate one. The viable graduate school in Moscow exists at the Independent University––an educational center founded by freelance mathematicians about 10 years ago. Most of the mathematicians actively working in Moscow give courses at IU, and there are some excellent students there. However, the scope of studies is much less broad than years ago; students and postdocs mostly go to the West for further studies.”