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Prime Time for Mozart of Math

Nemmers Prize winner to deliver talk on structure, randomness of prime numbers

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February 21, 2011 | by Megan Fellman
Terence Chi-Shen Tao
Terence Chi-Shen Tao

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Terence Chi-Shen Tao, dubbed the “Mozart of Math,” will deliver a public lecture Wednesday, March 2, at Northwestern University. The talk is intended for a general audience and will be non-technical.

Tao, the winner of Northwestern’s 2010 Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics, will discuss “Structure and Randomness in the Prime Numbers.” The free event will be held at 5 p.m. in Room 107 of Harris Hall, 1881 Sheridan Road.

“The prime numbers are a fascinating blend of both structure -- for instance, almost all primes are odd -- and randomness,” said Tao, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

A child prodigy, Tao started to learn calculus when he was 7, and when he was 20 earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He joined UCLA’s faculty that year (1996) and was promoted to full professor at age 24.

In his talk, Tao will discuss “pseudorandomness.” It is widely believed that beyond their “obvious” structures, the primes behave as if they were distributed randomly.

Recently, there has been progress in capturing enough of this pseudorandomness to establish new results about the primes, Tao says, such as the fact that they contain arbitrarily long progressions. He will survey some of these developments in his talk.

Tao has been hailed for unraveling extraordinarily complicated mathematical problems. He is well known for a proof, in collaboration with British mathematician Ben J. Green, of the existence of arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions of prime numbers (the Green-Tao theorem).

In 2006, he received a MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the genius award) and a Fields Medal, widely considered the top honor a mathematician 40 years of age or under can receive.

Tao was awarded the ninth Nemmers Prize “for mathematics of astonishing breadth, depth and originality.” In addition to the mathematics prize, Northwestern awards the Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics and the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. All three are awarded every other year.

The prizes and Tao's lecture are made possible through bequests from the late Erwin E. Nemmers, a former member of the Northwestern University faculty, and his brother the late Frederic E. Nemmers.

For more information on the March 2 lecture, contact Cheryl Albiniak at albinice@math.northwestern.edu.

Topics: Campus Life