In Brief

This Man Won the Top Prize in Mathematics — Then Someone Immediately Stole It

caucher birkar, fields medal
Caucher Birkar, 40, receives the Fields Medal, math's most prestigious prize, during the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Image credit: STR/AFP/Getty)

Yesterday (Aug. 1), University of Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar won the Fields Medal — the highest prize in mathematics, awarded every four years to a small group of mathematicians age 40 or younger. The award came with a 14-carat gold medal and 15,000 Canadian dollars (about $11,500). According to the BBC, Birkar put the medal in his briefcase, along with his wallet and phone, and left the briefcase on a table in the Rio de Janeiro conference center where the award was presented.  

When he returned, the briefcase was gone. 

Birkar was one of four mathematicians to recieve a Fields Medal in 2018. He recieved the prize for his work in the field of algebraic geometry.

"As a mathematician," Quanta Magazine explained in a profile published Aug. 1, "Birkar has helped bring order to the infinite variety of polynomial equations — those equations that consist of different variables raised to various powers. No two equations are exactly alike, but Birkar has helped reveal that many can be neatly categorized into a small number of families. In two papers published in 2016 he showed that an infinite number of different polynomials can be defined by a finite number of characteristics — a result which demonstrated that this bewildering array of seemingly unrelated algebraic equations shares something in common." [What Is Topology?]

This is one of the Fields Medals awarded in 2018, held by its winner, Birkar's co-honoree Alessio Figalli (who, as far as we know, still has his award). (Image credit: Silvia Izquierdo/AP/Shutterstock)

Birkar, a Kurdish refugee from Iran, is the second person born in Iran to win a Fields Medal in this decade. Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford mathematician from Iran, became the first (woman and remains the only one ) to win a Fields Medal in 2014. She died in 2017 at the age of 40.

Originally published on Live Science.

Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.