UChicago mathematician, physicists win $3 million ‘Oscars of science’

Co-creator of ‘magic wand theorem’ honored along with quantum physicist, black hole project

Prof. Alex Eskin, a University of Chicago mathematician who co-proved a “magic wand theorem” that had far-reaching consequences in the field, has been awarded one of the $3 million Breakthrough Prizes.

Two other projects involving UChicago faculty were honored this year. The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, of which the University of Chicago is a partner, was honored for creating the first image of a black hole earlier this year. That prize will be shared equally among the 347 co-authors, including UChicago scientists John Carlstrom, Tom Crawford, Brad Benson and Steve Padin. Michael Levin, an associate professor of physics studying quantum condensed matter physics, was also awarded the New Horizons Prize along with three other physicists for “incisive contributions to the understanding of topological states of matter and the relationships between them.”

The prizes, sometimes called the “Oscars of science,” were announced Sept. 5 by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which was founded by a group of tech entrepreneurs including Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki.

“I’m kind of stunned,” said Eskin, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor at UChicago, who worked for five years with the late Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani on a “magic wand theorem.”

“One of the things about proving a theorem is that it’s like climbing a mountain no one has climbed before—at any given point you have no idea it’s going to work, but you have to believe it will. It’s been a journey, and this is quite a surprise,” he said.

A ‘magic wand’ for mathematics

Eskin was cited for “revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials,” including the proof of the “magic wand theorem” with Mirzakhani.

Eskin teamed with Mirzakhani to prove a theorem about dynamics on moduli spaces. Their tour de force, published in 2013, has far-reaching consequences in the field of mathematics. It addressed a longstanding math problem: If a beam of light from a point source bounces around a mirrored room, will it eventually reach the entire room—or will some parts remain forever dark?

After translating the problem to a highly abstract, multi-dimensional setting, the two mathematicians were able to show that for polygonal rooms with angles which are fractions of whole numbers, only a finite number of points would remain unlit.

Born in Kiev, Eskin received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of California, Los Angeles and studied physics and mathematics at Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology before receiving his PhD in math from Princeton University. He joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1996. Eskin is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences; among his other honors are a Sloan Fellowship and a Simons Investigator Award.

Eskin said he intends to donate part of the prize money to an International Mathematical Union fellowship to help graduate students pursuing doctorates in developing countries, following a tradition among winners of the prize.

This year's winners join their University of Chicago colleagues Craig Hogan, who received the Breakthrough Prize in 2015 for his work on the High-Z Supernova Search Team that helped prove that the universe is expanding faster and faster over time, rather than slowing; and Daniel Holz and Hsin-Yu Chen, who received the 2016 Breakthrough Prize for their work as part of the LIGO collaboration that made the first detection of gravitational waves.

The EHT collaboration also includes several scientists who worked at UChicago as postdoctoral researchers or grad students, including Jason Henning, Ryan Keisler, Erik Leitch, Daniel Michalik and Andrew Nadolski.

The awardees will be recognized at a Nov. 3 ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.