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Word HCMC's Man of the Year: Ngo Bau Chau

By: Duncan Forgan Posted: January-22-2011 in
Ngo Bau Chau
Duncan Forgan

Ngo Bau Chau’s groundbreaking work in the field of mathematics has elevated him to hero status in Vietnam this year. Duncan Forgan casts an admiring, if uncomprehending, eye over the academic’s achievements.

With his rimless glasses, standard issue haircut and quiet and meek demeanor, he is the antithesis of the glamour figures venerated by many young Vietnamese. Nevertheless, the elevation this year of Ngo Bau Chau to national hero is a heartening reminder that substance can still triumph over style.

Here at The Word HQ we had some trouble deciding upon our man of the year. While many individuals have done worthy and interesting things over the past twelve months, no one figure really stood out. Initially, we were also reluctant to settle on Chau. We were, of course, aware of his triumphs in the field of mathematics, but we weren’t sure how his work squared with an arts and entertainment publication where painstaking studiousness isn’t normally part of the lexicon.

The more we thought about it, however, the more it made sense. Chau’s genius has led some to label him as the ‘Pele of world mathematics’, while the attention heaped upon him since he won the Fields Medal — the maths version of the Nobel Prize — has been akin to that received by a pop star or a movie sensation. This guy is, quite clearly, not your average mathematician.

Chau received the award for his proof of a mathematical conundrum known as the ‘fundamental lemma’. While we are not even going to pretend to know what that means and what the implications are for the future of mankind, the International Congress of Mathematicians honoured his ‘profound and beautiful argument, built on insights mathematicians have contributed for over 30 years’.

The Congress went on to say that Chau’s breakthrough ‘removed one of the great impediments to a grand, decades-long program to uncover hidden connections between seemingly disparate areas of mathematics’.

Whatever it is that Chau has discovered through his pioneering work, it seems to have struck a resounding chord both overseas and here in Vietnam.

Time magazine included the breakthrough in a list of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2009, while an estimated 3000 people attended a ceremony to welcome him home to Hanoi following the award of the Fields Medal.

Chau’s route to the top of the mathematics tree has taken him far and wide. With a grant from the French embassy in Hanoi, Chau left home in 1990 to begin university in Paris. He continued at Ecole Normale Superieure — one of France’s best post-secondary institutions — and earned a doctorate from Paris-Sud University in 1997.

In 2004, along with Gerard Laumon, Chau earned the prestigious Clay Research Award for work on the fundamental lemma. But it needed more.

He left France in 2006 for the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent academic institution in Princeton, New Jersey.

Suddenly in the US, the breakthrough came.

“Everything played out in one or two weeks in December 2006. At that moment I found the missing piece of my puzzle. And I knew that I would go to the end, and prove the lemma.”

Chau, who has dual French and Vietnamese nationality, has recently joined the mathematics faculty at the University of Chicago. He says he plans to spend three months a year in Vietnam and open a mathematics institute under the Ministry of Education.

“One of the objectives will be to attract Vietnamese scientists to get them to come back and work in their country,” he says. A worthy intention and no more that you might expect from a man who has done his country proud this year.

Republished with the kind permission of The Word HCMC


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