he 2014 Fields medallists have just been announced as (in alphabetical order of surname) Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, Martin Hairer, and Maryam Mirzakhani (see also these nice video profiles for the winners, which is a new initiative of the IMU and the Simons foundation). This time last year, I wrote a blog post discussing one result from each of the 2010 medallists; I thought I would try to repeat the exercise here, although the work of the medallists this time around is a little bit further away from my own direct area of expertise than last time, and so my discussion will unfortunately be a bit superficial (and possibly not completely accurate) in places. As before, I am picking these results based on my own idiosyncratic tastes, and are not necessarily the “best” work of these medallists.
Artur Avila works in dynamical systems and in the study of Schrödinger operators. The work of Avila that I am most familiar with is his solution with Svetlana Jitormiskaya on the ten martini problem of Kac, the solution to which (according to Barry Simon) he offered ten martinis for, hence the name. The problem involves perhaps the simplest example of a Schrödinger operator with non-trivial spectral properties, namely the almost Mathieu operator defined for parameters and
This is a bounded self-adjoint operator and thus has a spectrum that is a compact subset of the real line; it arises in a number of physical contexts, most notably in the theory of the integer quantum Hall effect, though I will not discuss these applications here. Remarkably, the structure of this spectrum depends crucially on the Diophantine properties of the frequency . For instance, if is a rational number, then the operator is periodic with period , and then basic (discrete) Floquet theory tells us that the spectrum is simply the union of (possibly touching) intervals. But for irrational (in which case the spectrum is independent of the phase ), the situation is much more fractal in nature, for instance in the critical case the spectrum (as a function of ) gives rise to the Hofstadter butterfly. The “ten martini problem” asserts that for every irrational and every choice of coupling constant being very small or very large, or being either very close to rational (i.e. a Liouville number) or very far from rational (a Diophantine number). The argument uses a wide variety of existing techniques, both perturbative and non-perturbative, to attack this problem, as well as an amusing argument by contradiction: they assume (in certain regimes) that the spectrum fails to be a Cantor set, and use this hypothesis to obtain additional Lipschitz control on the spectrum (as a function of the frequency ), which they can then use (after much effort) to improve existing perturbative arguments and conclude that the spectrum was in fact Cantor after all!
Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford, is the first woman to win math’s highest prize, and Avila is the first South American.