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February 24: Jewish Mathematicians

February 24, 2012

The Fields Medal for achievement in mathematics was established on this date in 1931 by the Committee of the International Mathematical Congress, although the first of prizes (two to four medals are awarded every four years) would not be bestowed until 1936. Twenty-seven percent of the recipients have been Jewish or half-Jewish, including one of the first two winners, Jesse Douglas of the City College of New York, and one of the two most recent (2010), Elon Lindenstrauss of the Hebrew University and Princeton University, the first Israeli to receive the award. All recipients of the Fields Medal must be under 40 years old; it is widely considered the most prestigious mathematics award and is often called "the Nobel Prize for Mathematics" (although the cash prize is only $15,000 Canadian, compared to $1.5 million for Nobel Prizes). In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, became the first woman — and the first Iranian — to receive the Fields Medal. The Russian Jewish mathematician Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman declined it in 2006, stating, "I'm not interested in money or fame, I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo."

"Israel is indeed a mathematics ‘power,’ but hadn’t yet won this top Fields Medal until now. The age limit of 40 for winning it is definitely an obstacle for young Israeli researchers who have to begin their academic careers later than others because of their military obligations." —Menahem Ben Sasson, Hebrew University President