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Meet the Ukrainian Number Theorist Who Won Math’s Highest Honor

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late February, Just weeks after Marina Vyazowska learned that she had won the Fields Medal (a mathematician’s highest honor), Russian tanks and warplanes began attacking her native Ukraine and her hometown of Kyiv.

Vyazovska no longer lives in Ukraine, but her family is still there. Her two sisters, a 9-year-old niece and an 8-year-old nephew set off for Switzerland, where Vyazowska now lives. They first had to wait two days for traffic to loosen up; even then, it was very slow going west. After several days in a stranger’s home, waiting for their turn to become war refugees, the four crossed the border into Slovakia one night, traveled to Budapest with the help of the Red Cross, and boarded a flight to Geneva. On March 4, they arrived in Lausanne to live with Vyazowska, her husband, her 13-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

Vyazovska’s parents, grandmother and other family members remain in Kyiv. As the Russian tanks got closer to her parents’ home, Vyazovska tried every day to convince them to leave. But her 85-year-old grandmother, who had lived through war and occupation during World War II, refused, and her parents would not leave her. Her grandmother “couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t die in Ukraine,” Vyazowska said, “because she spent her life there.”

In March, a Russian airstrike leveled the Antonov aircraft factory, where her father worked during the decline of the Soviet era. Vyazowska attended a nearby kindergarten. Fortunately for Vyazovska’s family and other Kyiv residents, Russia shifted the focus of the war to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine later that month. But the war is not over yet. Vyazovska’s sisters spoke of friends who had to fight, some of whom died.

Vyazowska said in May that while war and math were in different parts of her mind, she hadn’t done much research in recent months. “When I have a conflict with someone or have some emotional difficulty, I can’t work,” she said.

On July 5, Vyazowska accepted the Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Helsinki, Finland. The conference, organised every four years by the International Mathematical Union, along with the announcement of the Fields Medal, was due to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia, despite concerns over the host country’s human rights record, prompting a boycott petition. More than 400 mathematicians. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the IMU turned to a virtual ICM and moved the live awards ceremony to Finland.

During the ceremony, IMU cited Vyazovska’s many mathematical achievements, in particular her proof of a method called Second8 A lattice is the densest packing of spheres in eight dimensions. She is only the second woman to receive this honor in the medal’s 86-year history. (Maryam Mirzakhani was the first, 2014.)

Like other Fields Medal winners, Vyazowska “succeeded in doing completely unobvious things that many people have tried but failed to do,” said mathematician Henry Cohen, who was asked to speak at an official ICM speech Celebrate her work. Unlike the others, he said, “she did this by revealing very simple, natural, deep structures that no one expected and that no one else was able to find.”

Second Derivative

On a rainy May afternoon, the exact whereabouts of EPFL were far from obvious outside the EPFL metro station. Known in English as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne – in any language as a leading research university in mathematics, physics and engineering – it is sometimes referred to as the MIT of Europe. At the end of a bike-and-pedestrian lane, under a small highway, idyllic signs of campus life come into view: huge two-story shelves filled with bicycles, modular buildings fit for a sci-fi cityscape, and a central plaza It is lined with classrooms, restaurants and posters of upbeat students. Beyond the plaza is a modern library and student center, which rises and falls in three-dimensional curves, allowing students to move around inside and out. From below, the sky is visible through the cylindrical axis passing through the topology like Swiss cheese. Not far away, in one of the modular structures, a professor with a secure access card opened the double orange doors leading to the secret room inside the mathematics department. Right next to the portraits of Knott, Gauss, Klein, Dirichlet, Poincaré, Kovalevsky and Hilbert, stands a green door with only the sign “Prof. Marina Vyazovska, Chairman of Mathematics.”

Viazovska videoconferences with students from her EPFL office.Photography: Thomas Lin/Quanta Magazine



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