A Path Less Taken to the Peak of the Math World

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2730 Jun. 28 22.46On a warm morning in early spring, June Huh walked across the campus of Princeton University. His destination was McDonnell Hall, where he was scheduled to teach, and he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Huh is a member of the rarefied Institute for Advanced Study, which lies adjacent to Princeton’s campus. As a member of IAS, Huh has no obligation to teach, but he’d volunteered to give an advanced undergraduate math course on a topic called commutative algebra. When I asked him why, he replied, “When you teach, you do something useful. When you do research, most days you don’t.”

We arrived at Huh’s classroom a few minutes before class was scheduled to begin. Inside, nine students sat in loose rows. One slept with his head down on the table. Huh took a position in a front corner of the room and removed several pages of crumpled notes from his backpack. Then, with no fanfare, he picked up where he’d left off the previous week. Over the next 80 minutes he walked students through a proof of a theorem by the German mathematician David Hilbert that stands as one of the most important breakthroughs in 20th-century mathematics.

Commutative algebra is taught at the undergraduate level at only a few universities, but it is offered routinely at Princeton, which each year enrolls a handful of the most promising young math minds in the world. Even by that standard, Huh says the students in his class that morning were unusually talented. One of them, sitting that morning in the front row, is the only person ever to have won five consecutive gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

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