Iranian and Indian Fields Medallist; Mr. Birkar and Mr. Venkatesh

I learnt about the Fields Medallist, Caucher Birkar, from a comment in BP. To make it even sweeter it so happens Mr. Birkar is from Cambridge so it’s a big win for our fair city in the ongoing competition with the States. Cambridge as a rule of thumb is the best STEM University this side of the Atlantic but MIT & Stanford make a good run for it’s money on a world-wide basis.

At any I immediately went into Internet Iranian mode and pronounced Mr. Birkar as the Second Iranian to win this in a row.. In my rush to proclaim a victory for Iranian I didn’t realise I was technically correct since the Fields Medal is every 4years and he follows into the footsteps of the late & great Maryam Mirzakhani. To my mind Mr. Birkar is British Iranian since Kurdistan is not a nation and even if it were it is still a part of Greater Iranian; as the children of Medians, Kurdish and Azeri identities, are simply subsets of Great Iran.

Vidhi noted that Mr. Venkatesh won the award too (it’s given every 4 years to 4 mathematicians under 40).

Interestingly enough he’s being described as an Aussie Prodigy even though he’s probably a TamBram of some sort (born in Delhi). Immigration doesn’t seem to be working out so badly for Australia:

Professor Venkatesh is just the second Australian to receive the Fields Medal. Dr Terence Tao won the award in 2006.

Comedian and mathematics communicator Adam Spencer said it was a “great day for Australian mathematics” and the crown in a string of recent achievements from Australian mathematicians.

Fields medal Akshay Venkatesh
Adam Spencer said it was a “great day for Australian mathematics”. Photo: ABC

“Australian mathematics is on a real roll here,” Spencer said.

“First mathematician Geordie Williamson from the University of Sydney was admitted to the Royal Society, making him the youngest member.

“Then Nalini Joshi, also from the University of Sydney was named vice-president of the International Mathematical Union.

In 2016, when Professor Venkatesh was awarded another prestigious prize, he said doing mathematics gave him a feeling of “transcendence”.

“You feel like you’ve been part of something really meaningful,” he said at the time.

Now a husband and father of two, he said children were a great way to force him to stop obsessing about mathematical problems.

Those children are the joy of his life, his mother said.

“He is a terrific father, a wonderful father. And yes, they are the joy of his life. They are the absolute joys of my life, too,” she added.

Tao, Venkatesh and Joshi don’t sound like Anglo-Celtic names.. But thankfully we have a “mathematics communicator” to break it down for us (ouch I was being a tad waspish there; I apologise).

Finally speaking of children:

But for his mum, who is immensely proud of him, she just wants him to be happy.

“That is all I hope for him, that he is happy and he loves what he does,” said Svetha Venkatesh, who is herself a professor of computer science at Deakin University, and a leader in the field of machine learning.

Professor Venkatesh, who teaches at Stanford University in the US, is being honoured for work that combines insights from several different fields of mathematics.

Vidhi happens to  be in Machine Learning and of South Indian extraction (Chennai born & bred) so if she had a child..

31 thoughts on “Iranian and Indian Fields Medallist; Mr. Birkar and Mr. Venkatesh”

  1. Could be wrong, but from what I’ve been able to turn up it seems Venkatesh is a Kamma surname.

  2. i think it is accurate after a fashion to say kurds are iranian since that’s an ethno-linguistic grouping as well as nationality. they just aren’t persians.

    1. @Razib

      He clearly does not seem to identify as Iranian and I have not known Kurds to either, though not sure how representative that sample is. (I have Kurdish neighbours who flatly refuse any Iranian identity)

      In his final year as an undergraduate he traveled to England. While there, he sought political asylum in response to the “political problems in Iran for people like me,” he said, referring to his identity as a Kurd, a minority ethnic group that has often suffered state-sponsored repression.

      Comparison of the Iranian regime, brutal though it is, with the Nazis is a little harsh. However, as a refugee myself I see where he is coming from.

      In his office at the University of Cambridge, Birkar displays two photographs of the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck. Grothendieck was a refugee — he fled Nazi Germany — and a Fields medalist, just like Birkar.


      1. 90% of Kashmiris (I’m undercounting it’s probably 95%) don’t want to identify as Indian but India insists that they are Indian..

        For some reason I suspect the situation in Iranian Kurdistan is a lot more peaceful..

        Stones, glasshouses that sort of thing…

        1. There was an article about Kashmir in the NYT just the other day. It describes today’s situation where most Kashmiris want independence and a few want to join Pakistan. However, no one will say anything nice about India in public.

          J&K policemen (who are local Kashmiri Muslims) are looked on as traitors and collaborationists for fighting “militants” (or freedom fighters). When a policeman is killed, the general public doesn’t mourn them but thinks they deserved their deaths. When a “militant” is killed, there are mass funerals in the Valley.

          One should never underestimate the amount of disenchantment and dislike Kashmiri Muslims have for India.

          1. I agree with your and Zach’s comments (though we may not agree on other related matters).

            Indians with tribalist possessiveness over Kashmir don’t even realize the harm they are doing to their own people and the country due to blind emotional attachment to a piece of land.

          2. Yes, the Kashmir issue needs to stop being looked at as a real estate dispute between India and Pakistan and centered around those who really matter–the Kashmiri people.

            For what it’s worth, I think in any country if the central government cannot keep an ethnic group happy and has to use military force to keep them in the union, then it is morally unjustified and better to let them go.

          3. I should clarify: by “their own people” I was referring to Indians especially Hindus, not Kashmiri Muslims.

            I am not denying the existence of the moral angle involving Kashmiri Muslims, but it is instrumentally important to emphasize that even from the point of view of Indian/Hindu self-interest egocentric clinginess to Kashmir is counterproductive.

          4. I did assume that by “their own people” you meant “mainland” Indians.

            Kashmiri Pandits are Kashmiris and as such they are stakeholders in the conflict. A solution must be found that they can live with as well (perhaps autonomy for the Valley). But someone from Tamil Nadu (for example) cannot claim stakes in Kashmir that are higher than those of Kashmiris. That Indian possessiveness about the borders on the map is completely counterproductive.

            Pakistanis also need to either keep the Baloch happy or let them go. Same with Madrid and Catalonia.

        2. Having seen my house burnt down with my own eyes and having had stones pelted at, I guess I have more than metaphorical familiarity with that, otherwise glib, phrase.

          That said, any Kashmiri Muslim is welcome to her/his identity. I don’t go out of my way to insist on any one’s Indianness. I, of course, assert mine. More power to Birkar and anyone like him.

          1. You personally may not force Kashmiri Muslims to consider themselves Indian but the Indian State certainly does. I believe that is what Zack was calling you out on. As he said, we don’t hear about 500,000 troops in Iranian Kurdistan. Perhaps we are all just missing the news?

            Comparing Iran to the Nazis is totally ridiculous. No one is being gassed in Iran.

          2. I’m not really interested in Kashmir; it’s not Pakistan and it doesn’t seem to want to be India either..

            I was merely pointing out hypocrisy that’s all..

            I remember Benazir telling us the story that when she was convincing Saddam to support Pakistan on the Kashmir issue; he replied “what about Kurdistan?”

            Being the quick thinker that she was she explained to him, Kashmir was an international & bilateral issue, Kurdistan was not. I never did find out what happened in the end but I guess it comes full circle..

          3. “Being the quick thinker that she was she explained to him, Kashmir was an international ”
            She is a quick and prolific liar. ZAB agreed with Mrs Gandhi Kashmir will be bilateral and not international issue and Benazir was privy to the negotiations.
            Actually Saddam gave her advice on how to keep the Generals under control, an advice she didn’t follow at great cost to her power and person.

          4. I’m trying to remember if I’m misremembering the incident or not..

            I do remember directly what she said that when she was made PM she was told Pakistan could reach Srinagir
            But then as a swap India could cover half of Sindh..

            Amusing anecdote; I asked her why didn’t she just do that.. she seemed a bit aghast at that!

        3. Can we say , Iranian Kurdistan is a lot more peaceful after a number of people like this mathematician sought political asylum elsewhere ? May be Iranian govt is firm with the policy of showing the door to stone throwers.

          1. The Iranian Revolution sparked hundreds and hundreds of thousands of refugees; also he is under 40 so the latest birth year is 1978, one year before Revolution.

            I will tell you a story told to me in Tehran. In Shah’Ara (a central district of Tehran by Azadi Tower) there is the government passport office.

            For a few years after Revolution it was closed. My friend told me that when the passport office re-opened on that day (he was 14 or so) the line extended the whole avenue. The avenue is miles long..

            Everyone wanted to leave Iran after the Revolution; it wasn’t minority specific..

          2. @Zack
            “it wasn’t minority specific”

            Sending million refugees abroad and saying minority specific does not cut. Can we say those who hated a shia theocratic regime were a minority and they should have been given as much cultural and religious rights as the Shia majority ? Even even those Shias who wanted a secular regime were a minority ? or they were a majority who were overwhelmed by a fanatic minority?

          3. @Zack

            I gather so. That is all the more the reason I was surprised at your semi-justification it is all quite in the Kurdish front (compared to Kashmir). Successful repressions seem to attract much less condemnation from half-hearted police actions and good coverage in the press .

          4. Iranian Kurdistan is not a disputed territory. It’s part of Iran.

            “Jammu and Kashmir” is very much disputed territory. Therein lies the difference.

  3. Well, it will be like that till kashmiri sunni muslims remain majority. Don’t worry, our govt is doing everything to rectify this as there is very big possibility of end of 35-A.

    In another news, a 19 year old Pakistani hindu is arrested for supposedly posting blasphemous content on facebook. His 15 year old sister has been converted to islam by imam. The boy is arrested on the complaint of imam.

    Look at the poor girl forced into horrible looking burka at such a tender age. Her future likely entails marrying a 55 year old muslim man who will be already married with children. (this happens everyday) After some time she will be sold into brothel. And she is just 15.Everybody is complicit And media, establishment does nothing. And some people have the audacity to compare India and Pakistan. Even under a right wing govt that is very ‘radical’, nobody can dare to do such a thing. Infact, ‘oppressed’ gujarati muslims attacked hindus’s shops and burnt their houses when a hindu boy married a muslim girl two days ago.

    1. Your comment has nothing to do with Kashmir. “Whataboutary” is not an intellectual argument.

      Try ending Article 35-A or Article 370. You’ll find it is easier said than done. Article 370 is all that keeps Kashmir with India.

  4. On the one hand, we have children of Indian immigrants going on and on about how offended they feel when someone asks “where their really from ? “. On the other hand, we have this need to classify people who barely lived in India, did all their schooling and growing up in Australia as ‘Indians’ because of what their last name happens to be.

    Akshay Venkatesh is an Australian. He was raised there, schooled there and learnt his mathematics there. As far as his mathematical achievements are concerned, he cannot be called ‘Indian’ in any sense of the word.

    It does make sense to call Dr. Birkar an Iranian, since he did learn a lot of his math in Iran, whether he currently identifies as Iranian or not.

    We should take pride in institutions, and we do have some good ones in the IISERs which should produce world class scientists/mathematicians just like IITs produced engineers/managers.

    1. Dr. Venkatesh is ethnically Indian, no matter where he grew up or which nationality he holds. As such, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Indians taking pride in his achievements. However he chooses to self-identify is his right.

      Being asked where you are “really from” is very patronizing (even if the people asking that question don’t mean it that way) because it suggests that you are not really American. American citizenship is not based on ethnicity. When they don’t get the answer they want (for example, I usually answer that I’m from Maryland), they have to resort to “what is your ethnic background”, which is what they are actually trying to figure out.

  5. Akshay Venkatesh name sounds likely a Tambram. That is noteworthy if the person happens to be a world class Mathematician. The ethnic community has produced many mathematicians and theoretical physicists. Ehnicity does not leave a person that easily if they happen to carry an Australian pass port. I read Dr. Venkatesh was born in New Delhi. If not in the genes, family environment and role models, possible ethnic net work does play a role in a person’s life.

  6. One of the most impressive things about Caucher Birkar is he came from basically nowhere, and his family was very uneducated. His mother apparently had no schooling at all, which isn’t unusual in the Kurdish regions of Iran for people of that age.

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