SBS Radio App

Download the FREE SBS Radio App for a better listening experience

  • Australian professor Akshay Venkatesh has received the world's most important prize in mathematics. (AAP)
Australian mathematician Akshay Venkatesh has been awarded what is sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of Mathematics," the prestigous Fields Medal. The professor, who now teaches at Stanford University in the United States after graduating from high school at age 13, was one of four recipients from around the world.
Charlotte Lam

3 Aug 2018 - 1:05 PM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2018 - 1:05 PM

From the Perth schoolyards to the lecture theatres of Stanford University, now it is the world stage for Akshay Venkatesh.

The 36-year-old Australian mathematician has been awarded the world's highest honour in mathematics, becoming the second Australian ever to win a Fields Medal in Brazil. 

He was recognised for his work in several different fields of mathematics.

On the other side of the world, back in Australia, his mother, Svetha Venkatesh, who did everything in her power to keep his childhood normal, is celebrating.

"Well, I think what I'm most proud about is what he has become as a person more than anything else, the father that he is, the family that he has and what a balanced person he is. And I think that is what I'm most proud of about him."

Italian mathematician Alessio Figalli, Iran's Caucher Birkar and Germany's Peter Scholze  were also honoured.

Mr Figalli says it is an honour which is hard to believe.

"It's a very mixed feeling. And then when I got it, the email, I didn't believe it. For a few days, I was still asking myself, and to my wife, whether they will contact me again and tell me, 'Well, in fact, we made a mistake. We told you the news, but, in fact, it was someone else. You know ...'" 

Akshay Venkatesh blitzed through most of his schooling as a child, but an interest in number theory was his ticket to graduate school in the United States  -- at age 16.

His mother says she never called him a genius or a child prodigy, even when the rest of the world did.

"We worked very hard not to have that label. I think it's just a sensational label. And different children just happen to have different kinds of abilities and progress at their own pace. So we don't like that label, and we have tried hard (to make sure) that that label is not attributed to him."

Instead, Svetha Venkatesh says the family fostered his determination and curiosity with love and support, helping him become the man who could step up on the world stage now and accept what is sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for Mathematics."

The head of the University of Sydney mathematics school, Jacqui  Rammage, says Akshay Venkatesh's prize has put humble Australian mathematics on the world map.

"We have superb mathematicians in the country, young mathematicians, talented and hard-working people. One of the things that I would like to get across is that you do not have to be a child prodigy to be a great mathematician. Hard work takes you a long, long way."

A new institute is to be built at the University of Sydney -- the first of its kind in Australia -- to help fund world-leading mathematicians to find solutions to difficult problems.

Professor Rammage says there is no such thing as a prodigy, that it all comes down to passion and hard work, which is why she still does what she does every day.

"It makes me think. I have to think about it. It's not something ... it is the struggle. No, I don't want to say 'struggle,' because that sounds as if it's painful. But it's not. It's like going for a hike, it's the actual contemplative walk."

The field continues to soar at the university.

Professor Nalini Joshi has become the first Australian elected vice-president of the International Mathematics Union, and Professor Geordie Williamson has been named the youngest living Fellow of the Royal Society.