This spring, not long after Caucher Birkar learned that he would be receiving the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, he shared a memory from his undergraduate years. Even by that time he had come a long way. Born and raised in a rural subsistence farming village in the Kurdish region of western Iran, Birkar had made his way to the University of Tehran, one of the pre-eminent universities in the country. There, at the math club, he recalled studying the pictures of Fields medalists lining the walls. “I looked at them and said to myself, ‘Will I ever meet one of these people?’ At that time in Iran, I couldn’t even know that I’d be able to go to the West.”
There was a lot about his future that Birkar couldn’t have predicted at that time: his flight from Iran, his request for political asylum, the push to rekindle a nearly abandoned field of mathematics. And today, at a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, the honor of being selected as one of four winners of the Fields Medal, a prize conferred every four years by the International Mathematical Union on the most accomplished mathematicians in the world under the age of 40 at the beginning of the year in which the prize is awarded. “To go from the point that I didn’t imagine meeting these people to the point where someday I hold a medal myself — I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true,” said Birkar, who turned 40 in July.