June Huh often finds himself lost. Every afternoon, he takes a long walk around Princeton University, where he’s a professor in the mathematics department. On this particular day in mid-May, he’s making his way through the woods around the nearby Institute for Advanced Study — “Just so you know,” he says as he considers a fork in the path ahead, “I don’t know where we are” — pausing every so often to point out the subtle movements of wildlife hiding beneath leaves or behind trees. Among the animals he spots over the next two hours of wandering are a pair of frogs, a red-crested bird, a turtle the size of a thimble, and a quick-footed fox, each given its own quiet moment of observation.
“I’m very good at finding stuff,” he says. “That’s one of my special abilities.”
Huh, 39, has now been awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, for his ability to wander through mathematical landscapes and find just the right objects — objects that he then uses to get the seemingly disparate fields of geometry and combinatorics to talk to each other in new and exciting ways. Starting in graduate school, he has solved several major problems in combinatorics, forging a circuitous route by way of other branches of math to get to the heart of each proof. Every time, finding that path is akin to a “little miracle,” Huh said.
One might say the same of his path into mathematics itself: that it was characterized by much wandering and a series of small miracles. When he was younger, Huh had no desire to be a mathematician. He was indifferent to the subject, and he dropped out of high school to become a poet. It would take a chance encounter during his university years — and many moments of feeling lost — for him to find that mathematics held what he’d been looking for all along.
That poetic detour has since proved crucial to his mathematical breakthroughs. His artistry, according to his colleagues, is evident in the way he uncovers those just-right objects at the center of his work, and in the way he seeks a deeper significance in everything he does. “Mathematicians are a lot like artists in that really we’re looking for beauty,” said Federico Ardila-Mantilla, a mathematician at San Francisco State University and one of Huh’s collaborators. “But I think in his case, it’s really pronounced. And I just really like his taste. He makes beautiful things.” [Continue reading…]