Australians on a roll at world mathematics congress

9 August 2018
In a rare honour, Professor Geordie Williamson has delivered a 'brilliant lecture' at the International Congress of Mathematicians. He becomes the first Australia-based scholar to do so.
Professor Geordie Williamson speaking in Rio at the International Congress of Mathematicians. Credit: ICM

Professor Geordie Williamson speaking in Rio at the International Congress of Mathematicians. Credit: ICM

Professor Geordie Williamson from the University of Sydney has become the first Australia-based mathematician to deliver a plenary address to an International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM).

In what is a rare honour, the one-hour lecture, presented overnight at the world congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, caps off a stellar two weeks for Australian mathematics on the world stage.

US-based Australian mathematician Akshay Venkatesh was last week awarded a Fields Medal, the highest honour in world mathematics for a scholar under the age of 40. This followed the election of University of Sydney’s Professor Nalini Joshi as Vice-President of the International Union of Mathematics. Professor Joshi is the first Australian to hold this position.

Professor Williamson will shortly return to Sydney where he will become the foundation director of the University of Sydney’s Mathematical Research Institute, a world-class centre for the best mathematicians on the planet to visit and pursue deep thinking on profound questions in mathematics.

In Rio, Professor Williamson’s plenary lecture was an exploration of geometric techniques in what are seemingly algebraic problems.

The University of Sydney professor discussed his techniques using symmetric groups in representation theory through a concept known as semi-simplicity at the ICM.

“Semi-simplicity is a little like the air we breathe in representation theory,” Professor Williamson explained. “In initial situations, it’s everywhere, but when you go further and further out, you lose semi-simplicity.”

Representation theory is the study of symmetric solutions to linear equations, and geometry in this context means the study of the shapes formed by the solutions of non-linear equations.

The ICM described Professor Williamson’s “charismatic approach” to his speech as a “crowd-pleaser” and congress delegates rushed to congratulate him after, including Michael Atiyah, the 1966 Fields medal winner. Professor Atiyah said Professor Williamson gave a “brilliant talk” and considered the 36-year-old mathematician to be like his “great grandson in mathematics”.

This year Professor Williamson was elected the youngest living Fellow of the Royal Society in London and also the youngest Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Professor Anthony Henderson from the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics said: “It is great that Australian mathematicians have been particularly prominent at this year’s ICM. On Friday the Charge d’Affaires from the Australian embassy in Brazil, Peter Doyle, congratulated Fields medallist Akshay Venkatesh, plenary lecturer Geordie Williamson and newly elected IMU Vice-President Nalini Joshi.”

Professor Henderson will be the Sydney Mathematical Research Institute’s executive director.

Geordie Williamson on mathematics

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