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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Fields Medal stolen from Kurdish mathematician in Rio

Security officials at the Riocentro venue found the empty briefcase in a nearby pavillion

Kurdish mathematician, Cauchar Birkar, 40, right, receives the Fields Medal award, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, during the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM 2018) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 1, 2018. AFP
Kurdish mathematician, Cauchar Birkar, 40, right, receives the Fields Medal award, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, during the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM 2018) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 1, 2018. AFP

A winner of the Fields Medal, often called the "Nobel Prize of mathematics", had his prize stolen shortly after receiving it during a ceremony in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday.

Caucher Birkar, a Kurdish refugee from Iran teaching at Cambridge University, put the gold medal, worth around $4,000 (Dh14,690), in a briefcase and soon afterward realised that it had been stolen, according to event organisers.

Security officials at the Riocentro venue found the empty briefcase in a nearby pavillion. Police reviewed security tapes and identified two suspects.

"The International Congress of Mathematicians is profoundly sorry about the disappearance of the briefcase belonging to mathematician Caucher Birkar, which contained his Fields Medal from the ceremony this morning," organisers said.

It was the first time that the awards, held every four years, were hosted in the southern hemisphere.

Mr Birkar had celebrated his achievement — alongside co-winners Alessio Figalli, Peter Scholze and Akshay Venkatesh — as a fairy tale come true for the persecuted Kurdish people.

"I'm hoping this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people," he said, at the ceremony.

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Born in a village in the ethnic Kurdish province of Marivan, near the Iran-Iraq border, Mr Birkar said: "Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics."

Despite that, he went from Tehran University, where he recounts having looked up dreamily at portraits of past Fields winners, to get political asylum and citizenship in Britain and went on to establish himself as having an exceptional mathematical mind.

"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," Mr Birkar told Quanta Magazine.