Tens of thousands voted to choose the world’s top thinker from the 50 names we presented in our last issue. Here we speak to the winner, Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkarby Tom Clark / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
There has been phenomenal interest in our list of the World’s Top 50 Thinkers, with tens of thousands voting. After the ballot closed, I’ll confess to jitters on opening the results. In these polarised times, what sort of mind would rally the most online support? One of the more trenchantly opinionated thinkers on the list seemed a safe bet, a name that would probably alienate one set or another of Prospect readers.
In the event, though, the runaway winner was a thinker of a different sort: the 41-year-old Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar. It’s hugely satisfying to see work of pure thought honoured in this way—and doubly so because this is a Fields Medal winner with quite a backstory.
Birkar is a Kurd from Iran, one of four states that plays home to the stateless Kurdish people, and one where the traditional answer to their national aspirations has been an iron fist. Born in 1978, he grew up right by the border with Iraq; the bloody war raged throughout his childhood in the 1980s.
Speaking over a crackly connection from China, where Birkar is giving a lecture, he tells me how his family made a living off the land in western Iran: “My parents were farmers, as all my ancestors were farmers. We had a piece of land around the village and we—including myself and my brother—were charged with going to work on these fields, and grow all kinds of vegetables… wheat, and barley… We essentially produced almost everything we consumed.”
Did mathematical know-how lurk in this unlikely setting? “My mother never attended any school,” Birkar replies. “My father attended school up to primary school, and then he did not continue because it just wasn’t really practical.” Birkar’s talent for numbers was nurtured by his brother, six years older and then in secondary education. From the age of 10 or 11, he was introduced to “more advanced maths and physics… things like calculus.” In the UK, that’s the kind of thing you study at A-Level. Birkar, however, wasn’t studying maths to pass an exam: the great thing, he says, was realising you “could learn things just for fun, not just to get good marks in school.”
Read Sameer Rahim on the top thinkers you said we missed