Meet the Ukrainian number theorist who won the highest honor of mathematics | MarketingwithAnoy

At the end of February, just a few weeks after Maryna Viazovska learned she had won a Fields medal – the highest honor for a mathematician – Russian tanks and warplanes began their attacks on Ukraine, her homeland, and Kiev, her hometown.

Viazovska no longer lived in Ukraine, but her family was still there. Her two sisters, a 9-year-old niece and an 8-year-old nephew travel to Switzerland, where Viazovska now lives. They first had to wait two days for the traffic to stop; even then, the drive west was painfully slow. After spending several days in a foreigner’s home and waiting for their turn as war refugees, the four went one night across the border into Slovakia, continued to Budapest with the help of the Red Cross and then boarded a plane to Geneva. On March 4, they arrived in Lausanne, where they lived with Viazovska, her husband, her 13-year-old son and her 2-year-old daughter.

Viazovska’s parents, grandmother and other family members remained in Kiev. As Russian tanks got ever closer to her parents’ home, Viazovska tried every day to convince them to leave. But her 85-year-old grandmother, who had experienced war and occupation as a child during World War II, refused, and her parents would not leave her. Her grandmother “could not imagine that she would not die in Ukraine,” Viazovska said, “because she spent her whole life there.”

In March, a Russian air strike leveled Antonov’s aircraft factory, where her father had worked in the declining years of the Soviet era; Viazovska had gone to a kindergarten nearby. Fortunately for Viazovska’s family and other Kyiv residents, Russia shifted the focus of its war effort to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine later that month. But the war is not over. Viazovska’s sisters talked about friends who have had to fight, some of whom have died.

Viazovska said in May that although war and mathematics exist in different parts of her mind, she had not done much research in recent months. “I can not work when I am in conflict with someone or there is an emotionally difficult thing going on,” she said.

On July 5, Viazovska received her Fields Medal at the International Mathematical Congress in Helsinki, Finland. The conference, organized by the International Mathematical Union every four years in consultation with the Fields Medal announcements, was to take place in Skt. Petersburg, Russia, despite concerns over the host country’s human rights record, prompting a boycott petition signed by more than 400 mathematicians. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the IMU switched to a virtual ICM and moved the personal award ceremony to Finland.

At the ceremony, the IMU quoted Viazovska’s many mathematical achievements, in particular her proof that an event called E8 lattice is the densest pack of spheres in eight dimensions. She is just the second woman to receive this honor in the medal’s 86-year history. (Maryam Mirzakhani was the first in 2014.)

Like other Fields medalists, Viazovska manages to do things that are completely obvious that many people tried and failed to do, the mathematician said. Henry Cohn, who was asked to give the official ICM speech to celebrate her work. Unlike others, he said, “she does them by uncovering very simple, natural, deep structures, things that no one expected and that no one else had been able to find.”

The other derived

The exact whereabouts of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne are far from obvious outside the EPFL metro station on a rainy afternoon in May. Known in English as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne – and in any language as a leading research university in mathematics, physics and engineering – it is sometimes referred to as Europe’s MIT. At the end of a lane for bicycles and pedestrians hiding under a small motorway, the idyllic signs of campus life come to light: Huge two-storey racks packed with bicycles, modular architecture that fits a sci-fi cityscape, and a central space with classrooms, dining rooms and optimistic student posters. In addition to the square is a modern library and student center that rises and falls in three-dimensional curves so that students inside and out can walk under and over each other. From below, the sky is visible through cylindrical shafts struck through the topology like Swiss cheese. A short distance away, inside one of these modular structures, a professor with a security access card opens the orange double doors leading to the inner sanctuary of the Mathematics Department. Just past the portraits of Noether, Gauss, Klein, Dirichlet, Poincaré, Kovalevski and Hilbert stands a green door marked simply “Prof. Maryna Viazovska, Chaire d’Arithmétique.”

Vizovska video conferences with students at her EPFL office.Photo: Thomas Lin / Quanta Magazine

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