Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel at the 2016 Breakthrough Prize ceremony which honors achievements in the categories of Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics. (Photo credit: Justin Bishop)
On December 4th, the Breakthrough Prize marked its fifth anniversary celebrating top achievements in the fields of physics, life sciences, and mathematics with a star-studded ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Jeremy Irons, who recently starred as Cambridge mathematician and professor G.H. Hardy in The Man Who Knew Infinity, acted as presenter, recognizing the accomplishments in the mathematics category.
“I was honored to present this prestigious award,” said Irons. “Playing the role of G.H. Hardy was an invigorating experience for me, which opened up my mind to the great world of mathematics. Knowing that the Breakthrough Prize will open more doors in the field of math is nothing short of wonderful.”
The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the true story of Hardy’s friendship with Indian mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, played by Dev Patel. A self-taught mathematician, Ramanujan traveled from his home in India to Trinity College at Cambridge in 1913, where Hardy recognized his talent and became his mentor and confidant. The Man Who Knew Infinity has received numerous accolades and awards buzz since release, with particular praise for Irons’ depiction of Hardy; the New Yorker declared his performance “a thing of beauty”.
Hardy mentored Ramanujan for five years, making substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. At the Breakthrough Prize, Irons presented the Mathematics award to Jean Bourgain, a Belgian mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Study, for contributions to the fields of high-dimensional geometry, partial differential equations, number theory, and other specialized areas of mathematics.
In addition to presenting the Breakthrough Prize, Jeremy Irons recently participated in a White House discussion on the role of storytelling, cinema, and media in sharing the importance of science and mathematics, serving on a panel that included US Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil, the director of the National Science Foundation, and representatives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
A one-hour version of the Breakthrough Prize ceremony will air on FOX on Sunday, December 19, at 7:00-8:00 PM ET/PT and globally on National Geographic in 171 countries and 45 languages.
About Breakthrough Prize
Knowledge is humanity’s greatest asset. It defines our nature, and it will shape our future.
The body of knowledge is assembled over centuries. Yet a single mind can extend it immensely. Einstein reimagined space and time. Darwin distilled the chaos of life to a single idea. Turing figured out what it means to think.
Great scientists enrich us all. They enable technologies that ease our lives, but they also show us what’s beyond our horizons.
Science is revealing worlds far beyond the everyday scale, from the subatomic and cellular to the stellar and galactic. Increasingly we can think at these levels and trace the connections between them. And as we do, we are making progress on the truly big questions. Questions like:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
What is the Universe made of?
How did life begin?
How can matter think?
How much is knowable?
The disciplines that ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations are the fundamental sciences. The Breakthrough Prizes honor important, primarily recent, achievements in the categories of Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics.
The prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang. Committees of previous laureates choose the winners from candidates nominated in a process that’s online and open to the public.
Laureates receive $3 million each in prize money. They attend a televised award ceremony designed to celebrate their achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of the ceremony schedule, they also engage in a program of lectures and discussions. Those that go on to make fresh discoveries remain eligible for future Breakthrough Prizes.
About The Man Who Knew Infinity
At the turn of the twentieth century, Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a struggling and indigent citizen in the city of Madras in India working at menial jobs at the edge of poverty. While performing his menial labor, his employers notice that he seems to have exceptional skills at mathematics and they begin to make use of him for rudimentary accounting tasks. It becomes equally clear to his employers, who are college educated, that Ramanujan’s mathematical insights exceed the simple accounting tasks they are assigning to him and soon they encourage him to make his personal writings in mathematics available to the general public and to start to contact professors of mathematics at universities by writing to them. One such letter is sent to G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a famous mathematician at Cambridge University, who begins to take a special interest in Ramanujan.
Ramanujan at this time also marries while performing his menial labor and sending out his first publications. Hardy soon invites him to come to Cambridge to test Ramanujan’s mettle as a potential theoretical mathematician. Ramanujan is overwhelmed by the opportunity and decides to pursue Hardy’s offer to visit Cambridge University even though this means he must leave his wife for an extended period. He parts lovingly with his wife and promises to keep up his correspondence with her.
Upon arrival at Cambridge, Ramanujan is met with various forms of racial prejudice and finds his adjustment to England to be more difficult than expected, though Hardy is much impressed by the potential abilities which Ramanujan begins to put into real evidence during their contact with one another. Hardy remains concerned about Ramanujan’s ability to communicate effectively due to Ramanujan’s lack of experience in writing proofs, but with perseverance he manages to get Ramanujan published in a major journal. In the meantime, Ramanujan’s health begins to suffer due to poor student living standards and his frequent letters home to his wife remain unanswered after many months. Hardy continues to see much more promise in Ramanujan, however he remains unaware of the personal difficulties his student is having with his housing and with his lack of contact with his family back home in India. Ramanujan’s health worsens while he continues delving into deeper and more profound research interests in mathematics under the guidance of Hardy and others at Cambridge.
His wife, after much elapsed time, wonders at why she has not heard from Ramanujan and eventually discovers that his mother has been intercepting his letters. While still in England, Hardy takes special efforts to get Ramanujan’s now recognizably exceptional mathematical skills to be fully accepted by his university by nominating Ramanujan for fellowship at Cambridge University. At first Hardy fails for reasons related to university politics and recurrent ethnic prejudice at the university at the time of World War One. By later gaining the support of key members of the faculty, Hardy then again nominates Ramanujan for fellowship and he is finally accepted as a Fellow of the College. Ramanujan is eventually reunited with his family in India though his declining health suffered from poor housing and harsh winter weather in England ultimately take their toll and lead to his premature death after he has finally become recognized as a mathematician of international merit and importance.