Future Science Prize shines bright at math center in 'Royal Garden'

Tall, young, and taciturn, Xu Chenyang, a 36-year-old math professor who was only well-known in his intellectual circle, is now basking in the limelight since being awarded a Future Science Prize in Beijing on Oct 29.

Last year, 12 Chinese entrepreneurs funded the science prize to reward remarkable original research that was culminated in China and has global impact. They generously offer a $1 million mega prize for each laureate of the three categories. Their high profile gesture is intended to encourage more investment and public involvement in science, especially among the younger generation.

(Xu Chenyang at the awarding ceremony of Future Science Prize.)

In the 2017 edition, Physicist Pan Jianwei, the chief scientist for the world’s first quantum satellite in China, received the Physical Science Prize. Shi Yigong, biophysicist and dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University, was awarded the Life Science Prize for his research in processing pre-mRNA into mature mRNA. And the Mathematics and Computer Science Prize was presented to Xu from Beijing International Mathematical Research Center of Peking University, for his contributions to birational geometry.

Xu is one of the most highly acknowledged and promising young mathematicians in China. In 2011, he surprised his circle by turning down offers to teach at top American universities, including MIT, in order to join the Beijing International Center of Mathematical Research. Having acquired a PhD from Princeton University, he became a rising star in algebraic geometry for his postdoctoral work at MIT.

Joining the Center in 2012, Xu has continued to keep his exuberant creativity. On November 4, 2016, to recognize his outstanding works on log canonical pairs and on Q-Fano varieties, and on the topology of singularities and their dual complexes, the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) awarded him the Ramanujan Prize for Young Mathematicians from Developing Countries. The International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) has invited him to deliver a 45-minute speech at their 2018 gathering to be convened in Aug in Rio de Janeiro. Hosted once every four years, the meeting is the world’s largest and one of the most important for the topic of mathematics.

Drawn by the Center’s competitive and free atmosphere, Xu’s colleagues are an array of eminent young scholars who are overseas returnees. Among them are topology expert Liu Yi, who holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley; Yang Shiwu, who holds a PhD from Princeton University and is a postdoctoral researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializing in general relativity and hyperbolic partial differential equation; Liu Ruochuan, who holds a PhD from MIT and studies p-adic Hodge theory; and Dong Bin, a world-leading expert in mathematical methods in medical image processing, to name just a few.

(Beijing International Center of Mathematical Research)

A visit to their office is just sheer delight and enjoyment. It might be the world’s quietest math academy. On the country’s distinguished campus of Peking University behind a small but dense forest north of Weiming Lake is an enclosure surrounded by grey walls. Seven Siheyuan, or courtyards surrounded by small houses on all four sides, are hidden behind the vermilion gate with copper knockers. The entrance leads to narrow, intersecting passages with towering old trees, rocks, and flowers, and each yard is an exquisite garden where birds occasionally visit and joyfully break the silence. It used to be an imperial garden in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), but was later transformed into Siheyuan for residential use.

Today, Siheyuan offers space, comfort, and quiet for Xu and his colleagues to pursue higher heights. “Math gives you the freedom and space to slow down, to concentrate on one small matter. It feels pure and classical”, Xu said.

(Beijing International Center of Mathematical Research)

Many mathematicians at the Center, including Xu, returned to China under China’s national recruitment program for innovative talents. Since 2010, China has rolled out at least four projects to attract young overseas high-level scholars in the fields of liberal arts and social sciences to work in China on a full-time basis.

One of the reasons that these projects are alluring is the ample research funding provided. A scholar recruited under the Thousand Talents Plan can receive a 1-2 million yuan ($150,000-$300,000) academic subsidy from the Chinese government, which according to Xu, a program awardee, “Is usually only available for faculty from renowned universities in foreign countries.”

Besides, researchers in applied mathematics at the Center are grabbing fat chances from the booming industrial sectors in China, as mathematical modeling is the foundation of a gamut of technologies from aerospace science to artificial intelligence. Medical image processing expert Dong Bin said he is working with arguably China’s best medical research center – the Peking University Health Science Center, as well as eight first-class hospitals in Beijing, which, according to him, is “a once in a lifetime chance” if he was working in United States. Many experts like Dong and companies have dedicated themselves to computer-assisted diagnosis technology, a computer system that can automatically interpret X-rays, MRI scans, and ultrasounds. Through the technology, people from China’s vast remote areas without access to fine doctors can get more precise diagnosis and treatment.

(Beijing International Center of Mathematical Research)

[ Editor: WPY ]


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