Last week, Ngo Bao Chau became the first Vietnamese (and fourth Asian) winner of the Fields Medal, the world's most prestigious mathematics prize. The title, considered the ‘Nobel prize of mathematics,’ was presented to the 38-year-old mathematician at a ceremony in Hyderabad, India for his proof of the fundamental lemma.
Time magazine last year hailed Ngo’s work as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2009. And indeed, the proof is a crucial stepping stone in the theory that connects two major branches of mathematics—number theory and group theory. ‘It's as if people were working on the far side of the river waiting for someone to throw this bridge across,’ Princeton's Peter Sarnak said of Ngo's achievement. ‘And now all of a sudden everyone's work on the other side of the river has been proven.’
On receiving the award, Ngo was also immediately congratulated by his country’s prime minister, who wrote in a letter that the prize was a great victory ‘for the pride of Vietnamese education.’
Ironically, though, much of Ngo’s education took place outside of Vietnam. His post-high school years were spent at universities in France, a fact not lost on Nguyen Huu Du, vice chairman of the Vietnam Mathematics Association, who said: ‘If Professor Chau had only studied in Vietnam, he would never have won the Fields Medal.’
Vietnam still lags behind other nations in terms of its maths education, with the International Mathematical Union, the body that awards the Fields Medal, ranking it a lowly 54th in a list of 68 countries.
All the better, then, that Ngo is reportedly committed to helping develop Vietnam’s mathematics and supporting young Vietnamese who wish to study it. ‘I hope my award will inspire young people to pursue their own careers in mathematics,’ said Ngo, who says his top priority now is to help launch the Advanced Mathematics Institute in Vietnam and participate in the modernization of the country’s maths education system.
Vietnam’s government has recently shown a similar commitment. Just last week it announced a $34 million plan to improve maths education over the next 10 years. And, in a further bid to coax young people into more scientific disciplines, this December Vietnam will for the first time host the International Exhibition and Competition for Young Inventors.
Will this mark a new dawn for a Vietnam as it bids to improve its scientific base and boost its economy?
Jenghiz von Streng is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat. Currently based in Europe, he will very soon be relocating to Beijing, China.