Caucher Birkar became the first person in the world ever to receive the Fields Medal twice. In a special ceremony at ICM 2018 today, the Kurdish mathematician was presented with a replacement copy of the most prestigious prize in math, awarded to brilliant young academics. His original medal was stolen just minutes after he received it, along with three other colleagues, at the opening ceremony of the massive international math conference, last Tuesday.
The International Mathematical Committee (IMU) had a spare copy of the medal in Rio, for display purposes, and it was decided to award this to Birkar, to compensate for his loss. Presenting the medal, IMU President Shigefumi Mori noted the rarity of the occasion. “This will be a very rare occasion, for a person to receive the medal for a second time.”
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Birkar took a very light-hearted approach to the entire incident, as he spoke to the packed auditorium at Riocentro. “I think I have broken the record for the quickest robbery of a medal,” he joked. Among the unexpected positive side effects of the robbery, he said, “now I’m much more famous than I would be,” referring to the international media interest in the story. “I think now the number of people who know about the Fields Medal is much more than last week,” he said, adding that while his physical medal was taken, his award was never taken away from him.
A sense of humor is a common trait of Kurdish people, said the former refugee, who was a toddler when the Iran/Iraq war broke out. Growing up in a Kurdish village on the border between warring nations, he said his village was a regular target for air attacks, but luckily, there was never any land invasion. A traditional village, families cultivated their own food and did not depend on the outside for supplies. “Survival is intertwined in Kurdish culture,” he said, “we have had so many difficulties in our history that it just helps you to survive. The sense of humor is amazing, even in the most difficult times.”
In the scheme of things, the robbery of his medal is not important, he said. “I have seen much worse things in my life; this was like a joke for me compared to these things. If I were discouraged by such small things, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
As a young child, Birkar’s older brother helped him with math, teaching him new and exciting concepts. “At some point, I just realized that learning mathematics is another way of enjoying life,” he said, noting the importance of family support. “If you have someone nearby just to direct you, without pushing you too much, that helps a lot.” He hopes that his experience will be an inspiration to others. “It’s a really positive thing, and I hope it will positively inspire people, not only in the Middle East but around the world.”
ICM Chairman Marcelo Viana called it a “regretful incident with a happy ending” and outlined how the organizing committee reacted to the incident, working to “minimize the consequences to the extent of our capacity.” A scan of footage from the opening ceremony allowed organizers to identify the exact moment that the bag was taken from Birkar’s chair, as conference delegates gathered round to congratulate him. Images of two suspects were passed to police and broadcast on national television in Brazil.
Birkar said the experience hadn’t tarnished his impression of Brazil or Rio in any way. “From the first moment I arrived here, I found the people here are friendly and helpful. This little incident is not going to change my impression, and I’m sure I’m going to be here again.”