Science

Terry Tao: a beautiful mind to speak at UNSW

"Maths is more important than ever now, but it's so invisible," says Professor Tao. "It's used in the internet, it's used for finance, it's behind all the other sciences and engineering." (Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)
Wednesday, 9 September, 2009
Dan Gaffney

The Australian whiz kid who became a UCLA maths professor at age 24 will reveal the mysterious world of prime numbers on Wednesday 16 September at UNSW.

Terry Tao had won virtually every top research prize in mathematics prior to winning the 2006 Fields Medal, considered to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Now 34, his work has impacted several mathematical areas and he is known as the "Mr Fix-it" of mathematics by frustrated researchers who compete to interest him in their mathematical problems.

Prime numbers - numbers greater than one that can't be factored as the product of two smaller numbers - have fascinated mathematicians for more than 2,000 years. In 300 BC, the Greek mathematician Euclid devised a theorem revealing that every number can in principle be factored into primes - but nobody knows how to factor large numbers rapidly.

Today primes are applied in many areas, including public-key cryptography, which protects financial transactions at ATM machines and over the Internet. Cryptographic protocols rely on the inability to factor large numbers (200+ digits) in a practical amount of time.

In 2004 Professor Tao and Professor Ben Green of Cambridge University proved that it is always possible to find, somewhere in the infinity of integers, a progression of prime numbers of equal spacing and arbitrary length. They also devised ways of estimating the probability of finding such long progressions of primes, which has implications for possible new methods of encryption and security of information.

There are infinitely many primes but no easy method for finding them. Searching for big primes has become something of a sport among mathematicians. Currently, the largest known prime has more than 12 million decimal digits.

According to Tony Dooley, Head of the UNSW School of Mathematics and Statistics, Tao's work "has had a major impact in an unreasonably large number of areas". He adds "Australia can be justifiably proud of this great mathematician."

Professor Tao is deeply interested in mathematics education in Australia and he maintains a blog on the subject on his website. He is especially concerned about the decline in mathematics education and funding cuts in the university sector.

Mathematical sciences are critical infrastructure for science, research and innovation. Australia depends on mathematical know-how for defence and security, industry, economic and financial management, medical advances, modeling climate change, managing natural resources, and much more. In March 2009, the mathematics community released A National Strategy for Mathematical Sciences in Australia, which details the steps needed to build and maintain Australia's mathematical capability.

Professor Tao's Australian speaking tour is supported by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, the Clay Mathematics Institute and the Australian Mathematical Society.

Listen to Professor Tao's recent ABC radio interview with Adam Spencer (6:31)

UNSW lecture details
Date: Wednesday 16th September, 2009
Time: 6pm-7pm
Where: Leighton Hall Kensington Campus, UNSW
More information: here

Media contacts
Dan Gaffney, UNSW Science media, 0411 156 015
Margot Gorski PR Matters, 0412 393 394