On the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

Perhaps I am more of a commentator than a mathematician on this issue. I thought only BBC was crazy about it but apparently not – from the Facebook activity of math students and teachers alike, as well as Cambridge’s popular maths site Plus Magazine.

My concern is: could too many prizes make a profession seem cheap? Could degree inflation, as we know as university students struggling for work, rear its ugly head in academia as another sort of “inflation”? How could society put a price tag on usefulness when history surprises us with useless fancies now today’s hot topics? Don’t for a split second think maths is cold. It is ripe with tales of the unexpected.

Responding to a student who didn’t know any use for mathematics, Marcus du Sautoy has shared on Twitter the Nature article on the unplanned impact of mathematics. Academic institutions should be able to access the article, and those who can’t can visit this website for extra stories 🙂

I hope I’m not talking about the prize itself, as there remain many mathematicians to be acknowledged.  However I’m concerned that academic pursuits fall prey to underlying social expectations and, sadly, the devastation that follows. If we know not the use of a newborn baby, however underdeveloped, why consider eugenics? If one cringes at this question, why not shudder when it comes to mathematics?


I came across this maths professor Edward Frenkel (UC Berkeley) He seems interesting, in the sense of someone like Marcus du Sautoy (Oxford) and Brian Cox (Manchester). I recall E. Ho, who went on exchange at the university to study maths, mentioning that Terry Tao wasn’t as “good” as he thought he was. I have no comment on that. I saw MK Siu (HKU), who taught my AL Pure Maths teacher Mr J. Pun, on 13 June, coincidentally James Clerk Maxwell’s birthday – Siu mentioned the young Maxwell’s writings on oval curves when I mentioned my entry at Maths in the City – and he’s very interested in the history of mathematics and mathematical pedagogy. J. seemed impressed when I told him about the encounter. If only I work harder, I’ll join their ranks too.