In late February, just weeks after Maryna Viazovska learned she had won a Fields Medal — the highest honor for a mathematician — Russian tanks and warplanes launched their assault on Ukraine, her homeland, and Kiev, her hometown.
Viazovska no longer lived in Ukraine, but her family was still there. Her two sisters, a 9-year-old niece and an 8-year-old cousin, left for Switzerland, where Viazovska now lives. They first had to wait two days for the traffic to stop; even then the drive west was painfully slow. After spending several days in a stranger’s home, awaiting their turn as war refugees, the four crossed the border into Slovakia one night, went to Budapest with the help of the Red Cross, and then boarded a flight to Geneva. . On March 4, they arrived in Lausanne, where they stayed with Viazovska, her husband, her 13-year-old son and her 2-year-old daughter.
Viazovska’s parents, grandmother and other relatives remained in Kiev. As Russian tanks came closer and closer to her parents’ house, Viazovska tried every day to convince them to leave. But her 85-year-old grandmother, who had experienced war and occupation during World War II as a child, refused and her parents did not want to leave her behind. Her grandmother “couldn’t imagine not dying in Ukraine,” said Viazovska, “because she spent her whole life there.”
In March, a Russian air raid razed the Antonov aircraft factory, where her father had worked in the waning years of the Soviet era; Viazovska had attended a kindergarten nearby. Fortunately for Viazovska’s family and other residents of Kiev, Russia later that month shifted the focus of its war effort to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But the war is not over yet. Viazovska’s sisters talked about friends who had to fight, some of whom died.
Viazovska said in May that while war and math exist in different parts of her mind, she hadn’t done much research in recent months. “I can’t work if I’m in conflict with someone or if there’s something emotionally difficult going on,” she said.
On July 5, Viazovska received her Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Helsinki, Finland. Organized every four years by the International Mathematical Union in conjunction with the Fields Medal announcements, the conference was set to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia, despite concerns about the human rights record in the host country. triggering a boycott petition signed by more than 400 mathematicians. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the IMU turned into a virtual ICM and moved the in-person awards ceremony to Finland.
At the ceremony, the IMU cited Viazovska’s many mathematical achievements, most notably her proof that an arrangement called the E8 lattice is the densest packing of spheres in eight dimensions. She is only the second woman to receive this award in the medal’s 86-year history. (Maryam Mirzakhani was the first, in 2014.)
Like other Fields medalists, Viazovska manages “to do things that are totally out of the ordinary and that many people tried and failed,” said mathematician Henry Cohn, who was asked to deliver the official ICM lecture in honor of from her job. Unlike others, he said, “she does them by discovering very simple, natural, profound structures, things that no one expected and that no one else could have found.”
The second derivative
The exact whereabouts of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is far from obvious outside the EPFL metro station on a rainy May afternoon. Known in English as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne – and in every language as a leading research university in mathematics, physics and engineering – it is sometimes referred to as the MIT of Europe. At the end of a dual-use lane for bicycles and pedestrians that dips under a small highway, the idyllic signs of campus life come into view: gigantic two-tier racks full of bicycles, modular architecture befitting a sci-fi cityscape and a central plaza with classrooms , eateries and cheerful student posters. Behind the plaza is a modern library and student center that rises and falls in three-dimensional curves, allowing students to walk under and over each other inside and out. From below, the sky is visible through cylindrical shafts punched through the topology like Swiss cheese. A little further on, in one of those modular structures, a professor with a secure access card opens the orange double doors that lead to the shrine of the math department. Just past the portraits of Noether, Gauss, Klein, Dirichlet, Poincaré, Kovalevski and Hilbert is a green door with the inscription “Prof. Maryna Viazovska, Chair of Arithmetic.”
Viazovska videoconference with students in her EPFL office. Photo: Thomas Lin/Quanta Magazine
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