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Science

Moments after winning prestigious Fields maths award in Rio, Kurdish refugee sees medal stolen

It was an embarrassing debut for crime-ridden Rio, the first Latin American city ever to host the Fields ceremony, which takes place every four years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 4:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 9:18pm

A medal regarded as the most prestigious in the world of mathematics has been stolen from a Cambridge professor just half an hour after he was awarded the prize in Rio de Janeiro.

Caucher Birkar was one of four joint winners of the Fields medal – regarded as the Nobel Prize for maths – who were given the award at the International Congress of Mathematics on Wednesday.

But within minutes, the award was stolen. The G1 news site said Birkar had left the medal in a briefcase with his mobile phone and wallet on top of a table in the pavilion where the event was being held.

The event’s security team later found the briefcase under a bench, but the medal was missing.

Rio’s O Globo newspaper said the thief had already been identified from security camera footage.

Organisers lamented the theft in a statement.

“The organising committee of the International Congress of Mathematics profoundly regrets the disappearance of the briefcase of mathematician Cauchar Birkar, which contained the Fields medal he received at this morning’s ceremony,” they said.

“Images recorded at the event are being analysed. The organising committee is cooperating with local police authorities in their investigation.”

The congress is being held at Riocentro, a convention centre on the western edges of Rio – a city struggling with soaring crime rates.

This was the first time the congress has been held in Latin America, and participants came from all over the world to listen to talks by some of the brightest mathematicians.

Birkar was born in a village in the ethnic-Kurdish province of Marivan, near the Iran-Iraq border.

“Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics,” he said.

But he went from Tehran University, where he recounts having looked up dreamily at portraits of past Fields winners, to get political asylum and citizenship in Britain – and establish himself as an exceptional mathematical mind.

“To go from the point that I didn’t imagine meeting these people to the point where someday I hold a medal myself – I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true,” Birkar told Quanta Magazine.

In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani, from Iran, became the so far only female winner of the award. She died in 2017.

The Fields medal was first awarded in 1936 and since 1950 is presented every four years to up to four mathematicians under 40.

Other winners this year were Peter Scholze, a 30-year-old professor at the University of Bonn,

Alessio Figalli, 34, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Akshay Venkatesh, 36, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Stanford University in California.

The Guardian, Agence France-Presse