Q&A with Martin Hairer

We speak to the Regius professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick and winner of the Fields Medal

September 18, 2014

Source: Royal Society

Martin Hairer is Regius professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick and a fellow of the Royal Society. In August he was awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics. He is the eighth UK-based mathematician to win the award.

Where and when were you born?
Geneva, Switzerland on 14 November 1975.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in a bilingual environment (German at home; French everywhere else), which taught me very early on the difference between meaning and the words used to express it. This distinction is fundamental in mathematics and it is something many people struggle with: just look at how many people have problems accepting that 0.99999…and 1 are just two different “words” representing the same number.

You’re only the eighth UK-based scholar to win the award and the first since 1998. Is this a concern for British mathematics?
There have been only 56 Fields Medal winners worldwide since the award was created, so 14 per cent of all medals went to UK-based academics, which seems to me a rather good proportion for a country with less than 1 per cent of the world’s population.

You’ve also broken Oxbridge’s near-monopoly on the UK’s Fields medallists (not discounting UCL). Do you have institutional pride for your achievement too?
There is some, yes. The University of Warwick has a fantastic mathematics institute. This is very well known among mathematicians and in UK industry, but I hope that this award will contribute towards raising the general public’s awareness. Many people still seem to be conditioned to believe that any academic institution not affiliated to either Oxford or Cambridge is second rank, which is not the case at all.

What is the UK’s global position in the broader field of mathematics?
The UK has a clear leadership position in mathematics. It is always very tricky to try to rank countries, and there are of course a few other countries on a par with the UK. By most measures, I believe France and the US would rank above the UK. In the case of the US, this is due partly to the prestige of its top institutions and partly to better salaries. In France, this is probably due mainly to a difference in culture: mathematics seems to be much more appreciated by the general public there – but interestingly not so much by their industry.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Academically, I was always one of the strongest students, but this doesn’t mean I would say no to a good party on Saturday night!

What was your most memorable moment at university?
In our second year, our classical mechanics professor was Constantin Piron, who was famously quite eccentric. During his first lecture, he first spent 15 minutes “recalling” various concepts of differential geometry, a subject we had never even heard of. He then went on to quiz us on the tensorial character of various physical quantities. After three or four students and as many random responses, it was my turn: I flipped a mental coin and guessed the wrong answer. At this point he got really exasperated and exploded: “You are just as stupid as Pauli!” (Wolfgang Pauli was a physics Nobel laureate). That was probably the most memorable way I’ve ever been insulted.

In your spare time, you’ve developed HairerSoft audio editing software. Is this a hobby or work?
I would still classify it as a hobby, but one I haven’t had time to pursue much for the past two or three years. I started the project when I was still in high school to take part in the Swiss young scientists’ competition and continued working on it quite intensely during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. It became commercially successful around the time I received my PhD.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
One of the most visible changes in the UK is, of course, the introduction of relatively steep tuition fees. It still isn’t clear to me whether this will have a positive or a negative effect in the long run. If it motivates students to work in order to obtain better value for their money (paying £9,000 a year plus accommodation for a three-year drinking party is an awful waste of resources) then that’s great. If on the other hand it ends up having the effect of turning away bright students or changing the student/teacher relationship into more of a customer/salesman relationship, it would be a great loss.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would try to teach myself to be more self-confident, and I would probably fail.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best things are the freedom it gives me and that it allows me to do something I like for a living. One of the worst things is that, as in many jobs, one occasionally has to deal with mind-boggling rules cooked up by some (probably well-meaning) bureaucrat.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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