Award winning mathematician recognised with honorary degree

We were delighted to welcome Professor Caucher Birkar (Mathematics PhD, 2004) back to campus this winter to award him a richly deserved honorary degree.

His extraordinary story of dedication and ambition took him from the backwaters of Iran to the pinnacle of the mathematical world, when he was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal in 2019. He was also appointed Honorary Professor here at Nottingham in 2021.

Read his fascinating story below, from when we interviewed him on campus in February 2019.

(l-r): Dr Hamid Abban, Professor Caucher Birkar, Professor Nikos Diamantis

(l-r): Dr Hamid Abban, Professor Caucher Birkar, Professor Nikos Diamantis

The refugee from a war-torn country who seeks political asylum and becomes an internationally-renowned mathematician. It sounds like the plot from an upcoming Tom Hanks film, but the truth is perhaps stranger than fiction.

Caucher Birkar was born in 1978, growing up in the war-torn Kurdish mountains between Iran and Iraq, before arriving in the UK in 2000 seeking political refuge, and being placed here in Nottingham.

“It was chaotic and wasn’t the best time growing up, my family moved a couple of times because of the threat. Although we were aware of the danger as children we still tried to have fun.”

For many of us the enjoyment of mathematics may seem an antithesis but for Caucher it was love almost at first sum.

“I remember in the fifth grade (around the age of ten) getting that feeling, and it was really down to my brother. He would teach me beyond the textbooks. He was a very big influence; a unique and creative person, always making things.”

This feeling was nurtured by his teachers at school, in spite of the dangers around them, which encouraged the young Caucher to explore the boundaries of the subject. He would even go to the library outside of school hours and read books on mathematical subjects just to better understand its complexities. It’s something he credits with helping him gain a sense of independence too.

“There were a lot of excellent students at school, but they had a completely different view of what studying meant. I was looking from a completely different angle, trying to really understand mathematics, not just because I wanted the grades.”

This passion for a subject is clearly something he is keen to instil in his five year-old son as he grows up.

“What matters is that he does something he enjoys, as long as it’s useful and not useless! I wouldn’t push him in any particular direction though. He’s recently taken an interest in astronomy and it’s taught me a few things too!”

From Kurdistan to Nottingham

Intellectual achievement also resonates strongly and the UK’s lack of fascination or celebration of the mind was among the first things he noticed when arriving in the country in 2000.

“It was somewhat contradictory to me. I was puzzled that a country could produce so many excellent mathematicians when people don’t seem excited by the subject.”

Nonetheless it was his time at Nottingham in which his talent for mathematics became apparent more widely under the tutelage of Ivan Fesenko, Professor of Pure Mathematics. He graduated with a PhD in 2004, before continuing his studies at the University of Cambridge, where he still works today.

You may wonder how a passion for the subject can be sustained for almost 30 years. Well, there is always a new problem for which to find a solution, even if it’s one which may not be applied in our lifetime.

“Every field of mathematics has problems which are more important than others and solving one particular problem can affect many other things. The applications can be very unpredictable or unexpected so you can’t be short-sighted to say this has no application in the next 10 years.

“In my field of pure mathematics it’s not always necessary to think of a real world application - that can be someone else’s job. Maybe 50 or 100 years later someone else will find the application!”

Outstanding in his field

This dedication of course led to his being awarded of the Fields Medal in 2018 - the ‘Nobel Prize of Mathematics’ - and as you might expect he is remarkably unassuming about the achievement, professing as much satisfaction from the conclusions of his research as receiving the medal itself.

Yet the award is also tinged with sadness as the realities of the current political climate in his homeland make it impossible to return and celebrate with relatives; particularly his engineer brother who did so much to nurture his passion for the subject at a young age.

“Right now the most pressing issue in Iran is the economy; you can find people who are hungry across the whole country. People on the streets are suffering. It’s a consequence of internal, regional and international politics, and the region is still politically unstable."

He is hopeful that his new-found fame will give him the platform to address issues close to his heart such as improving education and promoting science. If his determination and perseverance over the last 30 years in anything to go by you would be willing to bet he will succeed.