Ben Green: A contagious passion for pure mathematics

Prof. Ben Green is all about pure mathematics. Asked what is at the heart of modern society, he would probably insist on mankind’s capacity to solve problems and pass its knowledge on to new generations. The 37-year old mathematician can actually boast about his contribution to both: the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) which takes place this year in Seoul (South Korea) will see him give a plenary session which he proudly qualifies as the pinnacle of his career. With his ERC grant, he is now providing young mathematicians with an opportunity to shine.

If you come across Prof. Green at the Oxford University (UK), chances are he is working hard on his ERC five-year research grant on 'Approximate Algebraic Structure' (AAS). In this project, he looks at what happens when the axioms used to define various mathematical objects such as groups (known as a set of elements and an operation satisfying certain conditions) or polynomials (expressions consisting of variables and coefficients), are weakened and give birth to so-called ‘approximate’ variants of these objects. This problem, while obscure to the profane, is key to major mathematical conundrums such as counting configurations of prime numbers, and it has diverse applications. For Prof. Green however, the problem is of interest in its own right – just like any mathematical brainteaser he faced through the course of his career.

The greatest form of praise

‘I am a pure mathematician and I am motivated by mathematical questions which are natural and beautiful, rather than by specific applications. History has repeatedly shown that mathematics created this way can later have extremely wide ranging and important applications, but I don't believe most pure mathematicians are motivated by this thought. Within pure mathematics, I am more of a problem solver than a theory builder, although a fairly large theory has arisen from the joint work I have done with Terence Tao and others,’ he explains.

Terence Tao is a long time collaborator of Prof Green and was recently granted with the 2014 Breakthrough Prize – sponsored by big industrials and a certain Mark Zuckerberg – for his work. The ultimate reward? ‘I was very happy for Terence. I suppose one of the key aims of that prize is to raise the profile of the best mathematicians amongst a wider audience. Hopefully, the mathematics itself – rather than merely the personality of the winners – will get a raised profile too’.

Ben Green is one of those mathematicians for whom the acknowledgement of his work is the most precious reward. He considers his upcoming plenary lecture at the ICM, taking place on 19 August, as a great honour. Which it certainly is if you consider that the list of previous plenary speakers includes some of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century.

‘Someone once suggested to me that mathematicians usually work for the begrudging approbation of a handful of fellow mathematicians. There is some truth in that – having something I do considered favourably by other mathematicians is the most meaningful form of praise for me,’ Prof. Green says.

Passing the torch

There is, however, another form of achievement that moves the eminent mathematician: drawing interest in math and helping young mathematicians break through. He has given various public lectures to a general audience and his ERC ‘AAS’ grant, for instance, is mostly dedicated to funding post-doctorates. ‘Grants from organisations such as the ERC allow us to attract very high-quality people to come and work in Europe,’ Prof. Green says.

With ‘AAS’, the mathematician attracted an entire team in Oxford and enjoys the benefits that exchanges with peers bring in terms of rapid progress. Some of these team members have already been very successful in their short careers.

‘Our students are competitive with the best from anywhere and perhaps our education system instills in them attributes such as independence and creativity, which might not be so highly emphasised everywhere in the world and which certainly cannot be easily measured,’ Prof. Green notes. Whilst some policy-makers tend to regret students’ ‘low achievement’ in mathematics, he thinks the field has a promising future provided that it rises to some challenges.

‘Mathematics already has a fairly high profile in the media, and it is encouraging to see a variety of well-written articles and lectures for a general audience out there. However, we are still a long way from a situation in which the role of mathematics as fundamental to most of modern life is universally appreciated. Large sections of the media and public still think of mathematicians as “boffins” working in total obscurity on things they have no hope of understanding the first thing about,’ Prof. Green deplores.

A first way to improve things could be, according to him, to value teachers more highly – pay them more, remove bureaucratic obstacles to them doing the essential part of their job, and empower them to choose their curriculum. Ultimately, this should enable them to focus on what really matters: creating vocations and supporting talents.

For the latter, Prof. Green also has a piece of advice: ‘Work hard!’ he insists. ‘Try to get stuck into a problem as early as possible in your research career, rather than spending years reading all the background. It needn't be (in fact, it shouldn't be) a particularly well-known question, but it should be something you find interesting.’

Project details

Research area: Mathematics (PE1)

Principal investigator: Ben Green

Host institution: Oxford University (United Kingdom)

ERC project: ‘Approximate algebraic structure and applications’ (AAS)

ERC call: Starting grant 2011

ERC funding: EUR1.88 million for five years

Researcher’s website

last modification: 2015-01-22 13:36:25

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