Shaw laureate Maxim Kontsevich's work recognised at award ceremony

Russian mathematician delves into mysteries of the universe, to help generations far in future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 1:17pm

It is hard to follow a conversation with Maxim Kontsevich, as he peppers it with unfamiliar terms such as mirror symmetry and vector spaces.

For the average person, the Russian mathematician may well have hailed from another dimension - delving into the mysteries of the universe to determine through maths how unseen forces balance one another.

His is the kind of work that, in simple terms, explores questions like: why does the pull of the sun affect the earth, even though there does not seem to be anything but empty space in between? Are up, down, forward, back, space and time not the only dimensions that exist?

"It's all very abstract. It's beautiful," the 2012 Shaw laureate for mathematics said about his work.

The beauty of the subject matter is what has kept Kontsevich, a 48-year-old professor at the French Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies, absorbed in the past two decades trying to figure out mathematical equations for forces in tiny dimensions of the universe that have yet to be seen or measured.

For his endeavours, Kontsevich received recognition at the Shaw Prize awards ceremony at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on Monday night.

The prize, created by media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, offers US$1 million awards in three fields: life science and medicine, astronomy and mathematical sciences. The winners were announced in May.

Kontsevich's work can be seen in the context of what physicist Stephen Hawking and other string theorists strive towards: a universal theory that explains all forces in the universe.

String theorists postulate that all forces and forms of matter can be broken down into elementary particles that are like one-dimensional oscillating strings. They think these tiny strings could explain natural phenomena such as black holes.

"The foundations are not concrete yet," Kontsevich said of his work. "Old physical theory and what happens on the very small scale is very different."

In the meantime, the mixing of physics and maths has opened avenues of research for scientists. Kontsevich's work on mirror symmetry, a subject studied by string theorists, would have been understood by only two or three others back in 1994, but was now a field with more than 100 scholars across the world, he said.

He laughed when asked when his research might have a practical application. "Not in this century," he said.