Prize-winning Mathematician Ian Agol Honors Mentor With Gift to UC Davis

Ian Agol
Ian Agol

Ian Agol, winner of this year’s prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, has made a $150,000 gift to UC Davis in memory of late mathematician William Thurston. 

A celebrated researcher and teacher, Thurston was known for his intuitive insights about complex geometric shapes. Thurston was awarded the Fields Medal, mathematics’ highest prize, and was a professor at UC Davis from 1996 to 2003. He worked longest at Princeton University but also held posts at UC Berkeley and Cornell University in addition to UC Davis.

“Thurston had a unique viewpoint of mathematics,” Agol said. “He emphasized the role of visualization and intuition behind the symbolic formulae. I benefited from learning his perspective and tricks for thinking about certain things in a particular way.” 

Agol, now a professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley, was a visiting research assistant professor at UC Davis from 1998 to 2000. His gift will establish the William Thurston Endowed Lectureship to fund lectures at UC Davis by noted mathematicians.

“We're grateful for this generous gift,” said Dan Romik, chair of the Department of Mathematics. “Establishing the endowed lecture series in honor of William Thurston is a terrific way to honor the mathematical legacy of one of the most influential mathematicians of recent generations. We are excited about this and look forward to hosting world-class mathematicians who will share their knowledge of important recent developments in mathematics with UC Davis students and researchers.”

Agol received the second annual Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics for his research in 3-D geometric topology. With an award of $3 million each in the categories of life sciences, physics and mathematics, the Breakthrough Prizes are the world’s richest in science.

Agol’s prize-winning work completed a series of problems in topology first outlined by Thurston in a seminal 1982 paper. Topology involves the study of shapes that maintain their properties even when their form is altered or folded. In 2012, Agol provided answers to the last of Thurston’s major lingering questions about 3-manifolds, proving both the Virtual Haken Conjecture and Thurston’s Virtual Fibering Conjecture. The new work unites different ways of studying hyperbolic 3-manifolds, which are negatively curved 3-D spaces similar to proposed shapes of the universe. 

Thurston was also known for teaching his students to visualize and discover mathematical ideas and concepts on their own. “In our Geometry and the Imagination class, he really didn't want to take anything away from the students' discovery and admonished me at least once when I was impatient and gave too big of a hint to the students,” said Agol, who co-taught with Thurston while at UC Davis.  

The Department of Mathematics will announce the inaugural Thurston Lecture in 2017.

— Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science