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Great Immigrants

Terence Tao
Professor of Mathematics, UCLA | MacArthur Fellow and Fields Medalist
Born in:
Australia

Called the “Mozart of Math” by fellow mathematicians, Terence Tao was born in Adelaide, Australia, to parents who had immigrated there from Hong Kong. Tao discovered his passion for mathematics as a child while playing games and solving puzzles, later explaining to CNN that he saw math as a way to help “make the world comprehensible and orderly rather than mysterious and capricious.” By age nine Tao was excelling at university-level calculus. At 13 he became the youngest winner of the International Mathematical Olympiad. Tao came to the United States when he was 16 to pursue a PhD at Princeton University. Eight years later he was appointed a full professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, making him the youngest tenured professor at UCLA. In 2006 Tao was awarded the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics, “for his contributions to partial differential equations, combinatorics, harmonic analysis and additive number theory.” His other awards include the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant,” and the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. Together with the University of Oxford’s Ben J. Green, Tao proved the Green-Tao theorem, which states “that there are arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions of primes.” Tao considers mathematics to be a collaborative “transnational activity” and believes that U.S. universities should aspire to attract top talent from all over the world. Reflecting on his work and the impact of theoretical mathematics, Tao said, “Mathematicians often work on pure problems that do not have any applications for 20 years, and then a physicist or computer scientist or engineer has a real-life problem that requires the solution of a mathematical problem and finds that someone already solved it 20 years ago.”