Mathematician of the Week: John Charles Fields

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Welcome to a new (weekly) series: the Mathematician of the Week. We’ll use this space to highlight upcoming anniversaries associated with prominent mathematicians of the present and past, and feature biographical notes on one distinguished individual.

John Charles Fields was born on May 14 1863 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. While his research area was the theory of algebraic functions, Fields is best remembered as the namesake of the Fields Medal, given quadrannually quadrennially at the International Congress of Mathematicians, and often viewed as the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Fields played a central role in ensuring the success of the 1924 ICM (held in Toronto), and in 1931 proposed the creation of an international medal to recognize significant achievement in mathematics, using funds left over from the 1924 ICM to endow the award.

Fields intended to present the proposal to the 1932 ICM, but fell ill shortly before that conference, and hastily modified his will just prior to his death to contribute $47,000 to the medal endowment.

Fields’ proposal envisioned an apolitical, international award:

One would hear again emphasized the fact that the medals should be of a character as purely international and impersonal as possible. There should not be attached to them in any way the name of any country, institution or person.

In spite of his expressed wishes, the medal was named in his honor from its inception at the 1936 ICM in Oslo.

(For more on the early history of the Fields Medal, see http://www.ams.org/notices/200207/comm-riehm.pdf .)

Other mathematicians with significant anniversaries for the week of May 11 through May 17:

May 11: Birthday of Richard Feynman (1918 )

May 12: Birthdays of Florence Nightingale (1820) and Oskar Bolza (1857); death anniversary of Jacques Binet (1856)

May 13: Birthday of Lorenzo Mascheroni (1750); death anniversary of Stanislaw Lesniewski (1939) [Lesniewski is TwoPi’s mathematical great-great-great-grandparent]

May 14: Birthday of Rudolf Lipschitz (1832) and John Charles Fields (1863); death anniversary of Ernst Kummer (1893)

May 15: Birthday of Emile Mathieu (1835)

May 16: Birthdays of Maria Agnesi (1813) and Pafnuty Chebyshev (1820); death anniversary of Joseph Fourier (1830)

May 17: Death anniversary of Alexis Clairaut (1765)

Sources: The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, and The Mathematics Genealogy Project.

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