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Stony Brook University Professor Awarded $3 Million Inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics at Celebrity Gala

Simon Donaldson, a renowned theoretical mathematician and a professor of mathematics in the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics and the Department of Mathematics at Stony Brook University, was awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics November 9 at a star-studded event in a former NASA airship station in Moffett Field, California.

Breakthrough Prize“It’s a great honor, and it’s hard to really feel that it’s real,” Donaldson said. “I have a lot of respect for the [other math prize recipients], and it’s great to be a part of that group.”

Donaldson, who was selected for his broad contributions to the fields of topology and geometry, was among 21 laureates recognized at the second annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony for their work in the fields of mathematics, physics and life sciences.

Reporters representing organizations including Reuters, the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal crowded around the red carpet, waiting in hushed anticipation for the entrance of the scientist celebrities. As the first laureates entered, the red carpet came alive with cheers and excitement.

In addition to the scientists, celebrities including actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Diaz and Jon Hamm were on hand in NASA Hanger One for the awards, which were created to celebrate scientific discoveries and engage the next generation of scientists. The NASA hanger, a dome of crisscrossing beams set against the backdrop of a mountain range, was illuminated in royal blue and changed colors throughout the night to reflect changes in the ceremony.

Breakthrough PrizeThe goal of the evening was not only to recognize pioneers in scientific fields, but also to demonstrate the extraordinary power of science. Many of the 200 guests attending the event gave a standing ovation when a former patient of Life Sciences Laureate Alim-Louis Benabid, MD, walked onto the stage to present the award. The patient, who had formerly been unable to walk due to a neurological disorder, regained motor function as a result of a treatment developed by Dr. Benabid.

The Breakthrough Prize, a set of international prizes in Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics, was founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri Milner and Julia Milner. This is the first year that prizes in the field of mathematics were awarded.

“Most people think of math as a purely analytical discipline, but it’s also something that’s very profound and creative,” said Facebook founder Zuckerberg. “And just as we celebrate the work of writers, artists and musicians, we also need to celebrate the brilliant and original contributions of mathematicians that are changing our lives and will change our lives in the future.”

In the field of mathematics, Donaldson’s work has bridged different flavors of geometry and his influence can be seen in his proof of the diagonalizability theorem, known as Donaldson’s Theorem, and his algebraic invariants of four manifolds, known as Donaldson polynomial invariants.

“It makes the whole family very proud, and it is very well deserved,” said Donaldson’s daughter, Jane “Cat” Donaldson. “A lot of scientists feel like they work so hard for so little reward both in terms of recognition and financially, so things like this give young scientists something to aspire to and to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Simon DonaldsonDonaldson, who is also a professor of pure mathematics at Imperial College London, first became interested in mathematics after designing boats as a child. He was selected for the Breakthrough Prize for his “new revolutionary invariants of four-dimensional manifolds and for the study of the relation between stability in algebraic geometry and in global differential geometry, both for bundles and for Fano varieties.”

John Morgan, director of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, said, “It is a great boon to the Simons Center to count Simon among our permanent members. It is reflective of the quality of the faculty both at the Simons Center and more broadly at Stony Brook University that our best are recognized as among the very best in the world.”

Donaldson and the four other recipients of the first Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics — Maxim Kontsevich, Jacob Lurie, Terence Tao and Richard Taylor — accepted their prizes together on stage. They each pledged to donate $100,000 of their prize to creating a math fellowship for graduate students in developing countries to create hubs of math research.

The ceremony was hosted by television writer and performer Seth MacFarlane and included a musical performance by Christina Aguilera. It will be televised on the Discovery Channel and Science Channel on November 15.  

—By Ruchi Shah '16; Red Carpet photo by Ruchi Shah




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