One year after the Fields Medal

Alessio Figalli’s life has changed since he was awarded the Fields Medal one year ago. There’s now more intensive contact to schools and public life, and he has taken on new tasks in research. He masters them with a joyful outlook and optimism.

Major events mark turning points: afterwards, much changes. That’s how Alessio Figalli feels too. One year ago on 1 August 2018 he won the Fields Medal , which is considered the "Nobel Prize of Mathematics". Since then some things have changed in his everyday life - both professional and private. It was not only from the realm of academia that he received numerous congratulations, invitations and further honours. The spheres of economy and society, politics and media also signalled their recognition and showed greater interest.

"I’ve experienced surprising and touching moments", reports Alessio Figalli with a smile, "for example, students have written me personal and very moving letters, and some of them even decided to study mathematics because they had read my story." Strangers have approached him at airports or at public events to congratulate him or take a selfie with him.

Research remains important

The professor of mathematics hasn’t experienced the commotion that typically surrounds stars from the worlds of sports, film or pop music. "I never felt like a pop star. I just keep on living my normal life", he says, "Research remains an important part of that because it made me the person I am today. It gives me energy and motivation." Last year, also his wife moved from England to Zurich.

Figalli himself received the first honorary doctorate of the University of Côte d’Azur and became a corresponding member of two scientific academies. The Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, where he studied, honoured him with a symposium and ETH Zurich programmed an honorary lecture - which was fully booked in a mere 70 minutes.

His honorary citizenship from the community of Bari Sardo is emblematic of the reactions from politics and society: that is the small town on Sardinia where Alessio Figalli spent his summer holidays as a youth with his parents - so are the requests for lectures to school classes and the general public.

New worlds, new experiences

"Prior to the Fields Medal, I had never given a lecture before the general public. That was a completely new world to me", adds Figalli, "I had to find a different way of thinking to explain what a mathematician does in a way that could be understood." In the meantime he has come to value public appearances just as much as lectures to an academic audience. He appeared at the Science Festival in Genoa , for example. His message is clear: "Mathematics might appear abstract. But it has very concrete questions at its origin. It helps us to understand nature."

I’ve experienced surprising and touching moments.
Alessio Figalli

Since winning the medal, Figalli has been working more closely on topics that concern the development, effects and communication of mathematics. On 11 September 2019 at the THE World Academic Summit hosted by ETH Zurich he will discuss with other experts which skills and knowledge are required in the high-tech working world of the future (catchword "Artificial Intelligence"), and what that entails for higher education. This major international event is being organised by the magazine Times Higher Education, which is famous for its ranking.

Mathematical knowledge plays a key role in this transition. "Mathematics is very important for the current challenges in computer sciences and financial technology", says Figalli. Recently he has increasingly been looking into the interactions between these three closely interconnected fields. The Fields Medal has helped to open doors: "It’s now much easier for me to meet researchers from other disciplines and from the industry."

Director of the Institute for Mathematical Research

Alessio Figalli is now able to devote himself to networking with top international mathematicians as the director of the Institute for Mathematical Research ( FIM ) as well. He was taking on this function at ETH starting on 1 September 2019. Founded 55 years ago, today the FIM enjoys an excellent reputation globally. Mathematicians regularly come to ETH in Zurich to share new ideas situated at the boundaries of mathematical knowledge.

That benefits mathematics in Zurich and in Switzerland, especially the doctoral and post-doctoral students. Figalli now wants to continue this tradition. Accordingly, ETH Zurich has already followed his proposal and elected the two Fields medal winners Martin Hairer (Imperial College London) and Akshay Venkatesh (Institute for Advanced Study Princeton) as well as the Research Director of the CNRS, Viviane Baladi, as new members of the FIM Advisory Board.

True labours of love

And he is also working to develop his own research. In addition to work on optimal transport, for which he was awarded the Fields Medal, he’s looking at a class of equations that are very well suited to describing chemical and biological phenomena known as "reaction-diffusion equations".

His true labours of love are promoting mathematical talent and teaching mathematics to students. "Mathematics is everywhere. So the opportunities in theory and application are just as diverse. That’s what I would like to show students using examples to awaken their interest in mathematics and science."

Florian Meyer

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