Utah professor wins Breakthrough Prize in mathematics; $3 million prize

December 4, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah mathematician Christopher Hacon has been awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize, an award created in 2012 by the founders of Google, Facebook and the personal genomics company 23andMe.

The $3 million prize recognizes Hacon's work in algebraic geometry, the field that studies geometric objects defined by polynomial equations. It connects and elevates algebra, which solves polynomial equations, and geometry, which describes the shapes arising from those equations.

Hacon was awarded the prize at a ceremony Sunday at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The event was hosted by actor Morgan Freeman.

Previous recipients of the prize include physicist and author Stephen Hawking; 2017 Nobel laureate in physics and Utah native Kip Thorne and gene editing pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.

"I am extremely honored and humbled by this award," Hacon said.

"The work is the culmination of sustained efforts by many brilliant mathematicians. It is very exciting that the field of birational algebraic geometry and the University of Utah are receiving this kind of recognition."

Hacon, distinguished professor of mathematics at the U., was a post-doctoral student at the U. and returned as a professor in 2002. Born in England, Hacon grew up in Italy.

He is particularly interested in objects that exist in more than three dimensions. Hacon and his colleagues have applied studies of these objects to extend the "minimal model program," a foundational principle of algebraic geometry into higher dimensions, according to a press release from the university.

The American Mathematical Society has lauded their work as a "watershed in algebraic geometry."

The Breakthrough Prize citation acknowledges Hacon's "transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions."

University of Utah President David Pershing, in a prepared statement, said Hacon "is one of the world's top mathematicians. We're proud to call him our own."

The Breakthrough Prize "highlights the exceptional caliber of the faculty in the University of Utah's mathematics department and the department's reputation for excellence in the mathematics community," Pershing said.

2018 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics winners James McKernan, left, and Christopher Hacon backstage at the 6th annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center on Sunday, December 3, 2017 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Peter Barreras/Invision/AP)

Hacon, 47, is the University of Utah's first McMinn Presidential Endowed Chair in Mathematics. He also has been awarded the 2016 EH Moore Research Article Prize; the 2015 Distinguished and Scholarly and Creative Research Award from the University of Utah; the 2011 Antonio Feltrinelli Prize in Mathematics Mechanics and Applications; the 2009 Frank Nelson Cole Prize in Algebra and the 2007 Clay Research Award.

Hacon earned his master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was awarded a bachelor's degree in mathematics from University of Pisa, a public research universityin Pisa, Italy.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Yuri and Julia Milner of Digital Sky Technologies, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, pediatrician and philanthropist Priscilla Chan, and 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki. The selection committee is made up of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates.

The prize is awarded in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics.