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The Migrant Mathematician!

The word refugee is closely related to civil war, partition and freedom movement…… Perhaps, another concept has been added to this list – mathematics. The Fields Medal is known as the Nobel Prize for mathematics and is awarded once every four years. In 2018, the winner of this prestigious prize is Caucher Birkar. Birkar is a Kurd and Kurds have no country in this world. They are the victims of genocide in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and other parts of the world.
Birkar arrived in Britain from Iran in 2000 and asked for political asylum. He did his PhD at the University of Nottingham in 2001-04 and then joined Cambridge University as a teacher. Birkar received the award at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro on August 1 for his work on categorising different kinds of polynomial equations. “I would be very happy if this news could relieve some of the sadness in the heart of Kurds and non-Kurds. I hope this serves as an encouragement for further striving by Kurdish readers, and for better recognition and respect for Kurdish scientists,” he said after receiving the award.


The Kurdish mathematician

Birkar, the third of six siblings, was born in Marivan, a city in Iran’s Kurdistan Province, in 1978. An Islamic coup, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, took place in Iran just a year after Birkar’s birth and the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War began in 1980. The changing political equation in West Asia prompted the Kurds to raise the demand of a separate state for them. It’s a fact that the condition of the Kurds was far better in Iran compared to Iraq, Turkey and Syria. However, Iran has never entertained the demand for self-determination of any community and the Khomeini administration murdered a number of Kurdish Communist Party leaders. Marivan (Birkar’s birthplace) was a troubled region, as it had witnessed tension for more than four decades. Still, mathematics became the Kurdish child’s first love. It’s surrealistic…….indeed!
After spending his school years in Marivan, Birkar studied mathematics at the University of Tehran and received a Bachelor’s Degree. He is the first degree holder in his family, as his mother is illiterate and father dropped out of the high school. During his school days, Birkar used to visit the local library everyday and tried to solve math problems. Even he had covered the syllabus of graduate level before joining the degree course. He was awarded the third prize in the International Mathematics Competition for University Students in 2000 and Birkar dedicated the prize to his father, who had to sell his lambs to send his son to Tehran.


Birkar (right) receiving the Fields Medal Award

After completing his graduation, Birkar realised that he would have to leave Iran. He said that the deteriorating political situation in Iran and other West Asian countries made the Kurds a vulnerable ethnic group. When he sought political asylum in Britain, the concerned authorities in London sent him to Nottingham. In 2003, Birkar – the then PhD student at the University of Nottingham – was awarded the Cecil King Travel Scholarship by the London Mathematical Society as the most promising PhD student. The subject of his research work was Algebraic geometry, as he published two papers in 2016.
The ‘seclusive’ mathematician used to help his father in farming in the past. Apart from mathematics, he also studies history. In his Cambridge office, there is a photo of Alexander Grothendieck, a French mathematician who had become the leading figure in the creation of modern algebraic geometry. Grothendieck’s political views were radical and pacifist, and he strongly opposed both the US intervention in Vietnam and Soviet military expansionism.


Alexander Grothendieck

It is to be noted that Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman, a Russian mathematician who proved Thurston’s geometrisation conjecture in 2003 and declined the Fields Medal in 2006, now lives in Israel. Born in Leningrad on June 13, 1966 to Russian-Jewish parents Yakov and Lyubov, Grigori is indebted to his mother who gave up graduate work in mathematics to raise him. His mathematical talent became apparent at the age of 10.


Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman

Like Grothendieck and Perelman, Birkar does not want to forget his ethnic identity. In fact, his real name is Fereydoun Derakhshani. Upon emigrating to the UK, he changed his name to Caucher Birkar, which means migrant mathematician in Kurdish.
Birkar has done all these because of his only love – Mathematics!

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