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Prizes and age limits: the case of the Fields Medal in Mathematics

by on February 12, 2014

I probably should have known this, but it was only when chatting recently to a mathematician friend that I realised that there is no Nobel prize in Mathematics. (There is some interesting but unfounded speculation as to why this is the case.) But there is the the Fields Medal, or – to give it its proper title – the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. However, unlike Nobel prizes, the Fields medal is subject to an age limit. It’s been suggested that this simply reflects the belief that mathematicians do their best work when young.

This page on the Princeton University website explains the rationale. (And they should know, Princeton has hosted more recipients of the Fields Medal than any other university.) It says: ‘a recipient’s 40th birthday must not occur before 1 January of the year in which the Fields Medal is awarded. As a result some great mathematicians have missed it by having done their best work (or having had their work recognized) too late in life. The 40-year rule is based on Fields’ desire that

… while it was in recognition of work already done, it was at the same time intended to be an encouragement for further achievement on the part of the recipients and a stimulus to renewed effort on the part of others.

Famously, Andrew Wiles, solver of Fermat’s Last Theorem, missed out on the Fields Medal because of his age.

In my view, 2 of the 3 reasons given above for having an age limit for the prize winner seem to be completely irrelevant (recognition of work done and stimulus to others). The 3rd (an encouragement to further achievement by the winner) also looks increasingly unsustainable in this era of longer working lives.

The Nobel Prize website publishes details of the age of its winners, by the way. The average age when awarded is 59 for the Laureates in all prize categories between 1901 and 2013. The most frequent age bracket is 60-64.

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