See the prizewinner page here. This year the award goes to Andrei Okounkov, Terence Tao, Wendelin Werner and Grigori Perelman; although the last-mentioned is likely the single awardee of whom a general audience will have heard anything, if only for the concerted efforts of ignorant journalists to milk his story for all the freakshow content it's worth, Perelman is actually one of the *less* interesting names on the list* as far as I'm concerned, as I've never had much of an interest in his branch of mathematics beyond putting it to use in the service of number theory. Yes, I'm well aware that the settlement of the Poincare conjecture **is** important - and unlike most of the people writing about it for a lay audience, I don't need the dumbed down version to get what it's about - but I'm no differential geometer by inclination, and understanding Ricci flow just doesn't do anything to get my pulse going.

Far more eye-catching for me is to see Terence Tao's name on the list, not just because his work is in the field of greatest interest to me, but because the results for which he's been awarded the prize (and about one of which I wrote more than a year ago) cover such a wide range of topics as to boggle the mind, especially in this day of ultraspecialization, while the import of at least two of Tao's most significant contributions are easily appreciated by almost anyone: you don't need a PhD in additive number theory to want to know whether there are arbitrarily long sequences of primes in arithmetic progression or to be curious about the minimum area covered by a needle making a full revolution on a plane.

As far as providing mathematical fodder for a general readership goes, Tao's work is probably the most promising of this year's four awardees, but other than being an ex-child prodigy, he's in almost every respect perfectly normal and well adjusted, which is poison as far as sensationalistic hacks are concerned. Journalists like their geniuses comfortingly kooky so none of their readers feel put in the shade by being aware of such brilliance, and as such you can expect the significance of Tao's being the youngest Fields Medal recipient ever to be passed over in silence in favor of more rubbish about a "world's cleverest man" [sic] whose work even a first rate mathematician who has a gift for writing struggles largely in vain to popularize. If only Terence Tao were to begin muttering to himself while twitching vigorously or running about the university hallways ranting about international conspiracies, he'd become an international media darling overnight. Thankfully Tao has more worthwhile things on his mind than pandering to an international media hungry for nutty professors, so we can look with confidence to enjoying many more years of interesting insights from his direction, while nothing of the sort can be said for a Gregori Perelman whose mathematical contributions are probably now all behind him now that he's settled the one problem which seemed to have gotten under his skin.

*Andrei Okounkov's research in algebraic geometry is also quite interesting, but by comparison to it a statement of the Poincare Conjecture is as acessible as the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. If you don't believe me, you're welcome to take a look yourself.

Terence Tao is from my home city of Adelaide, and the local media has been giving him some polite profiles, on the 'local boy comes good' principle.

His younger brother Trevor is the local chess wizard and music prodigy, so there's some talent in the family.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein | August 23, 2006 at 12:12 PM