Science + Technology

Terence Tao Appointed to UCLA’s James and Carol Collins Chair in the College of Letters and Science; Will Deliver Public Colloquium Jan. 17

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Terence Tao
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Terence Tao

Terence Tao, the first mathematics professor in UCLA history to win the prestigious Fields Medal, is the first scholar appointed to UCLA’s James and Carol Collins Chair in the College of Letters and Science. Jim and Carol Collins gave the College a $1 million gift to endow this chair.

While the vast majority of endowed chairs are designated in one particular field — such as nanosystems sciences, the Holocaust, dermatology or clinical law — the Collins Chair may be awarded to a professor in any of the College’s more than 30 departments.

Patricia O’Brien, executive dean of the College, announced Tao’s selection and praised Jim and Carol Collins for their dedication and generosity.

“Jim and Carol Collins are visionary donors who understand the value of flexibility in retaining and recruiting world-class faculty; this approach to endowing a chair reflects insightful leadership and is critical to the College’s success in retaining the world’s most outstanding scholars,” O’Brien said. “They have profoundly enhanced UCLA’s excellence.”

“It is gratifying that our gift will help UCLA for many generations to come by supporting the teaching and research activities of distinguished faculty,” said Jim Collins. “Faculty members who hold the chair will be selected based on the College’s highest priorities as determined by the executive dean.”

Collins said he and his wife are “delighted” that Tao has been appointed to the endowed chair and said Tao is “one of a kind.”

Tao will present a free public colloquium on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 4 p.m., in La Kretz Hall, Room 110, as part of the UCLA Science Faculty Research Colloquium series. His topic will be “Structure and Randomness in the Prime Numbers.”

Jim and Carol Collins have been actively involved in UCLA for more than 50 years as students, volunteers and philanthropists. They met as students, when Jim was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and Carol was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

Jim Collins earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at UCLA in 1950. In 1952, after meeting one of the fast-food pioneering McDonald brothers during a trip to San Bernardino, Collins opened his own hamburger stand — a single restaurant that he built into Collins Food International (now Sizzler International, Inc.), one of the country’s major food-service chains, which today has branches in the United States, Asia, Latin America and Australia. Collins is chairman emeritus and was formerly chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Sizzler International, Inc.

“UCLA was a great experience for me as a student, and I’ve had a love affair with UCLA ever since,” said Collins, who added that he bought Christmas gifts for his grandchildren at the UCLA Store.

Carol Collins’ involvement with UCLA began even earlier. She attended UCLA’s Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School and spent all of her elementary school years there. Three of the Collins’ four children also attended the school, as did a granddaughter.

Jim and Carol Collins made their first gift to UCLA in 1963. Over the years, they have supported scores of programs across campus with their philanthropy, which has included a $5 million gift to establish the James A. Collins Executive Center in the Anderson School and discretionary funding for the College of Letters and Science. From 1982 to 1988, Jim Collins chaired The UCLA Campaign, which substantially exceeded its fund-raising goal. He also served as a member of the cabinet for Campaign UCLA, the most successful fund-raising campaign in the history of higher education, which generated more than $3 billion to deepen and broaden the university’s excellence in education, research, health care and community service. Campaign UCLA concluded on Dec. 31, 2005. Collins also serves on the UCLA Foundation Board of Governors and is a former president of the UCLA Board of Trustees.

Jim has received major alumni honors at UCLA, including the Edward A. Dickson Alumnus of the Year award in 1982. Jim and Carol both received the Honorary Fellow Award at the 2000 College of Letters and Science awards dinner. Three of their four children attended UCLA.

“It’s wonderful to live close to UCLA and to attend the athletic and cultural events,” Jim Collins said.

Carol Collins has served as a board member for both Women & Philanthropy at UCLA and the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School (UES). In 1998, her $1.2million gift to UES set an individual giving record for the school, leading to the creation of the Carol L. Collins UES Director’s Chair.

Jim and Carol Collins also maintain many non-UCLA community affiliations, including the Los Angeles Metropolitan YMCA, the Venice Boys and Girls Club, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where they established the James and Carol Collins Center for Hospitality Management.

The tradition of endowing chairs to attract and retain internationally renowned scholars and recognize academic excellence dates back to 16th-century England.

Terence Tao won the Fields Medal, often described as the “Nobel Prize in mathematics,” on Aug. 22, 2006, at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid. In the 70 years the prize has been awarded by the International Mathematical Union, only 48 researchers have ever won it.

“Terry is like Mozart; mathematics just flows out of him,” said John Garnett, professor and former chair of the mathematics department at UCLA. “Mathematicians with Terry’s talent appear only once in a generation. He’s an incredible talent and probably the best mathematician in the world right now. Terry can unravel an enormously complicated mathematical problem and reduce it to something very simple.”

Christoph Thiele, UCLA professor and chair of the mathematics department, said outstanding graduate students from as far as Romania and China, as well as throughout the United States, have come to UCLA for the opportunity to study with Tao.

Born and raised in Adelaide, Australia, Tao was awarded the Fields Medal “for his contributions to partial differential equations, combinatorics, harmonic analysis and additive number theory.”

In selecting Tao, the International Mathematical Union said: “Terence Tao is a supreme problem-solver whose spectacular work has had an impact across several mathematical areas. He combines sheer technical power, an otherworldly ingenuity for hitting upon new ideas, and a startlingly natural point of view that leaves other mathematicians wondering, ‘Why didn’t anyone see that before?’ His interests range over a wide swath of mathematics, including harmonic analysis, nonlinear partial differential equations, and combinatorics.”

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years. Along with Tao, the 2006Fields Medal was presented to Andrei Okounkov, professor of mathematics at Princeton University, and Wendelin Werner, professor of mathematics at the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay. It was also offered to Grigori Perelman, formerly a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who declined it.

Tao, 31 years old, was 20 when he earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He joined UCLA’s faculty that year and was promoted to full professor at age 24.

One of the branches of mathematics on which Tao focuses is a theoretical field called harmonic analysis, an advanced form of calculus that uses equations from physics. Some of this work involves, in Garnett’s words,” geometrical constructions that almost no one understands.” Tao also works in a related field, nonlinear partial differential equations, and in the entirely distinct fields of algebraic geometry, number theory and combinatorics — which involves counting. His research has been supported by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the Clay Mathematics Institute.

Discover magazine praised Tao’s research on prime numbers, conducted with Ben Green, a professor of mathematics at the University of Bristol in England, as one of the 100 most important discoveries in all of science for 2004. A number is prime if it is larger than one and divisible by only itself and one. The primes begin with 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and 17.

Euclid proved there are infinitely many primes. Green and Tao proved that the set of prime numbers contains infinitely many progressions of all finite lengths. An example of an equally spaced progression of primes, of length three, is 3, 7,11; the largest known progression of prime numbers is length 23, with each of the numbers containing 16 digits. Tao and Green’s discovery reveals that somewhere in the prime numbers there is a progression of length 100, and length1,000, and every other finite length, and that there are an infinite number of such progressions in the primes.

To prove this, Tao and Green spent two years analyzing all four proofs of a theorem named for Hungarian mathematician Endre Szemerdi. Very few mathematicians understand all four proofs, and Szemerdi’s theorem does not apply to prime numbers.

“We took Szemerdi’s theorem and goosed it so that it handles primes,” Tao said. “To do that, we borrowed from each of the four proofs to build an extended version of Szemerdi’s theorem. Every time Ben and I got stuck, there was always an idea from one of the four proofs that we could somehow shoehorn into our argument.”

Tao is also well-known for his work on the “Kakeya conjecture,” a perplexing set of five problems in harmonic analysis. One of Tao’s proofs extends more than 50 pages, in which he and two colleagues obtained the most precise known estimate of the size of a particular geometric dimension in Euclidean space. The issue involves the most space-efficient way to fully rotate an object in three dimensions, a question of interest to theoretical mathematicians.

“Terry is the world’s expert on this set of five problems and has been since he finished graduate school,” Garnett said. “When Terry made a new estimate of how big the dimension must be, he also produced the solutions, or partial solutions, to many other problems.”

Tao and colleagues Allen Knutson at UC Berkeley and Chris Woodward at Rutgers solved an old problem(proving a conjecture proposed by former UCLA professor Alfred Horn) for which they developed a method that also solved longstanding problems in algebraic geometry – describing equations geometrically – and representation theory.

Speaking of this work, Tao said, “Other mathematicians gave the impression that the puzzle required so much effort that it was not worth making the attempt — that first you have to understand this 100-page paper and that 100-page paper before even starting. We used a different approach to solve a key missing gap.”

His views about mathematics have changed over the years.

“When I was a kid, I had a romanticized notion of mathematics, that hard problems were solved in ‘Eureka’ moments of inspiration,” he said.” With me, it’s always, ‘Let’s try this. That gets me part of the way, or that doesn’t work. Now let’s try this. Oh, there’s a little shortcut here.’ You work on it long enough and you happen to make progress towards a hard problem by a back door at some point. At the end, it’s usually, ‘Oh, I’ve solved the problem.’“

Tao concentrates on one math problem at a time but keeps a couple dozen others in the back of his mind, “hoping one day I’ll figure out a way to solve them.”

“If there’s a problem that looks like I should be able to solve it but I can’t,” he said, “that gnaws at me.”

In naming Tao one of “The Brilliant 10” scientists, Popular Science magazine, in their October 2006 issue, called him “Math’s Great Uniter” and said that “to Tao, the traditional boundaries between different mathematical fields don’t seem to exist.” The magazine described as “quintessential Tao” a breakthrough in a new field that “requires a mastery of techniques from across the mathematical spectrum. It’s this kind of ingenuity that won Tao this year’s Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics. He’s the youngest person to receive the Fields since 1986.”

Tao has made major discoveries in at least five branches of mathematics, the magazine said. The article quoted former UCLA Physical Sciences Dean Tony Chan saying of Tao, “the senior people in these fields are scratching their heads in awe.”

Tao’s results on prime numbers “brought an end to a mathematical search that had lasted for centuries,” the magazine said. In this research, Tao and co-author Green “used techniques from several fields to uncover an astonishing pattern among primes” — proving that the set of prime numbers contains infinitely many progressions of all finite lengths.

Tao was named a MacArthur Fellow in September 2006. In presenting the award, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation said: “Terence Tao is a mathematician who has developed profound insights into a host of difficult areas, including partial differential equations, harmonic analysis, combinatorics, and number theory. His work is characterized by breadth and depth, technical brilliance and profound insight, placing him as one of the outstanding mathematicians of his time.”

For more on Terence Tao, see http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Terence-Tao-Mozart-of-Math-7252 and http://www.math.ucla.edu/~tao/index.html.

The James and Carol Collins Chair in the College of Letters and Science is part of UCLA’s Ensuring Academic Excellence initiative, a five‑year effort aimed at generating $250 million in private commitments for the recruitment and retention of the very best faculty and graduate students. The initiative was launched in June 2004 and its goals include $100 million to fund100 new endowed chairs for faculty across campus, $100 million for fellowships and scholarships in the College of Letters and Science, and $50 million for fellowships and scholarships in UCLA’s professional schools.

About UCLA

California’s largest university, UCLA enrolls approximately 38,000 students per year and offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationally in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. For every $1 state taxpayers invest in UCLA, the university generates almost $9 in economic activity, resulting in an annual $6 billion economic impact on the Greater Los Angeles region. The university’s health care network treats 450,000 patients per year. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.

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