From Kurdistan to Nottingham – celebrating top Maths honour


February 28th, 2019

The University of Nottingham has held an event to celebrate the amazing achievements of PhD alumnus, Caucher Birkar, who studied at the University after escaping the brutal war between Iraq and Iran.

Caucher Birkar grew up in the Kurdish region of western Iran in a rural subsistence farming village. In his final year as an undergraduate at the University of Tehran, Caucher Birkar came to England where he sought political asylum. After studying at the University of Nottingham he became a Professor of Mathematics in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, at the University of Cambridge.

At a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro last year, Caucher was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, an honour presented every four years by the International Mathematical Union to the world’s most accomplished mathematicians. This is the first such medal awarded to a UK mathematician in the last 20 years and the highest honour in Mathematics. The Fields Medal and the Abel Prize are the highest international trophies in Mathematics, similar to the Nobel Prize in other sciences.

Caucher studied under the supervision of Ivan Fesenko, Professor of Pure Mathematics in the School of Mathematics at the University of Nottingham. Ivan said: “Caucher’s story is quite extraordinary. He came from Kurdistan to live in in Nottingham whilst he waited for a decision about his asylum application from Home Office. He was so passionate about striving to learn cutting edge mathematics that he almost immediately came to our maths department and asked me for a supervision of his work. I recommended some books for him to read and set an ambitious research project for his PhD years which I thought would take quite a time for him to implement. He came with its solution in three months, instead of usual three years! We then helped him to attend workshops and meet international researchers. Caucher met with and started to collaborate with Professor Slava Shokurov from Johns Hopkins University. We were delighted to apply our best efforts to help him to grow, with encouragement and support. While here in Nottingham, Caucher was awarded the London Math Society grant as the most promising UK PhD student in Mathematics, and then the EPSRC postdoc fellowship, and soon came his first famous breakthrough.”

Professor Fesenko continues, “Caucher is an incredibly hard-working researcher. He concentrates very deeply during his study. I remember I gave him a key from a committee meetings room so that he could use a very quiet room for his work when no committee meetings were taking place. Since his PhD years in Nottingham, Caucher has been regularly visiting our research group to give talks on his ongoing research work. We’re most delighted to be welcoming him back to Nottingham for this special event to celebrate his inspirational achievement. The Pythagoras theorem was proved 2500 years ago and is still remembered. Mathematical achievements are among the longest to live, they reflect something very important in our civilizations and they are based on fundamental understanding of underlying beauty of mathematical structures, often very hidden like a great treasure. Caucher has been very successful in finding such treasures which will be remembered for centuries.

Nurturing and supporting future leaders in science is a distinctive feature of the University of Nottingham. We would like more of our PhD students, here in Nottingham and elsewhere in the UK, to reach the stars in their journeys for knowledge, and we are here to support them!”

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