McMullen ’80 wins Fields Medal

A Williams graduate has garnered what is considered to be the highest honor that can be bestowed on a mathematician.

Last August, Curtis T. McMullen ’80 was awarded the Fields Medal, which is known as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

McMullen was presented the award for his research on Riemann surfaces, complex dynamics (or chaos theory), and hyperbolic geometry. His future research plans include explorations on the ways that knots, links and braids relate to three-dimensional space and surfaces.

Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams noted that McMullen has created new mathematical structures that help us understand the transition from regular behavior to chaotic behavior.

McMullen, who presently teaches at Harvard University, said he credits some of his success to his time as an undergraduate at Williams.

Specifically, he praised retired math professor Bill Oliver. McMullen worked on his senior honor thesis with Oliver, and noted that it was Oliver who taught him how to use “dictionaries,” analogies between related theories, a technique which has helped him understand the connections between dynamics and geometry.

McMullen said he was “in shock” when he learned that he had won the Fields Medal late last summer.

“I am in awe of the work of many of my colleagues, so I feel very lucky to have been chosen for this special recognition,” he said. This medal was the tenth major mathematical award that he has received.

McMullen noted that while he doesn’t view himself as a good problem solver, he “thoroughly appreciates abstract mathematics, contemplating and communicating it; and I enjoy the challenge of research.”

Professor of Mathematics Olga R. Beaver, who taught McMullen in a winter study course in functional analysis during his senior year at Williams, remembers him as an amazing mathematician and person.

She described him as “bright and quick to grasp,” and recalled an incident when he read a graduate text on his own outside of class.

“As a teacher it was a terrific experience to work with someone so enthusiastic,” Beaver said. “He doesn’t think about how brilliant he is. He just enjoys it. His talents didn’t enter his mind.”

Adams, who has remained in contact with McMullen, praised his powers of discernment.

“McMullen is friendly and unassuming, but he is always on top of whatever is being discussed,” he said. “In a room of 100 mathematicians, it is McMullen who asks the essential question of the speaker, and who clearly understands the talk at a higher level.”

The Fields Medal was established in 1924 at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Toronto, Canada. It was decided at that meeting that two awards would be presented to outstanding mathematicians every four years.

Canadian mathematician J.D. Fields, for whom the prize is named, hoped the medal would not only recognize past achievement, but also spur future research. Hence, all winners of the Fields Medal are under the age of 40.