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Fields Medal Recipient David Mumford’s STS Project “Sparked” an Interest in Theoretical Math

In 1953, David Mumford brought his home-made computer, made of old relays, and his knowledge of mathematics to Washington, D.C. to compete in what was then known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (STS). He says he is not sure if he even got the computer, which was fastened to an unwieldy 4 by 8 piece of plywood, to work during the Science Talent Institute. This same computer would later catch fire when a spark hit the paper tape. “I caused a small fire.” He says laughing, after that, “I decided it was better to do theoretical work.”

David still came away from STS feeling inspired. “One of the things which is really important about [STS] is that it gives you a sense of empowerment, it gives you the sense that you can be part of some serious scientific endeavors,” he says, remembering how he met the astronomer Harlow Shapley, a judge at STS, and was able to talk with him and other scientists about his work and ambitions. “More than simply the honor or the money, it is the feeling that, ‘hey, here I am, I’m a high school student, and maybe somebody believes that I can do something someday.’”

He took that sense of empowerment and, after putting aside the relays and physics, fell in love with theoretical, pure math at Harvard. His work in algebraic geometry earned him the Fields Medal in 1974.  Since then he has co-written several books, including Indra's Pearls: The Vision of Felix Klein. He recently retired from Brown University and also has a new book, Pattern Theory: The Stochastic Analysis of Real-World Signals, coming out in August.

For twenty years now David has been working on computer vision; for instance the space of shapes and how computers may be able to recognize objects the way humans do, and loves it. “I think the message for people who are getting this sort of award and starting their career, is to be aware that an academic career allows people the opportunity to pursue projects their whole life,” he says, adding that young students should not be afraid of taking on a project that may last a decade, or even a lifetime. “I feel that the biggest successes are when people get bitten by a bug of wanting to solve something that is a really long term enterprise.”

In addition to finding a life-long passion, he also made two life-long friends at STS, Howard Resnikoff and Emma Duchane Shah, with whom who he has remained friends for 50 years. Howard founded Aware, Inc, which develops DSL technology, and David has collaborated with Emma’s husband, Jayant Shah, who is also a math professor. “So that was a wonderful by-product,” David says, “making these connections.”

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