born: April 18, 1949 in Silver Springs, Maryland

Child prodigy. U.S.A.’s youngest full professor. Works in the fields of Fourier analysis, functions of several complex variables, and partial differential equations. Fields Medalist. Noted for solving “really hard” problems.

Mathematics, music and chess seem to be the only fields in which true prodigies occur. Before he was 12 years old, Fefferman had guided tours at the Smithsonian, acted as a trouble-shooter for an auto mechanic, and mastered calculus. By 17 he had graduated with high honors from the University of Maryland, and at 20 he earned his Ph.D. from Princeton. At 22 the newly bearded “Charlie” became a full professor at the University of Chicago. By the time he was 24, he completed the work that earned him a Fields Medal (awarded every four years to a mathematician under the age of 40) and a host of other honors. Fefferman’s meteoric climb to prominence is not typical of even first-rate minds in any field.

Fefferman enjoys playing chess (“I’m very bad — like lots of distinguished mathematicians I know.”), and he loves to sing along with classical music. He has even dabbled in a couple of presidential campaigns. Mostly, though, he wants “to do what all mathematicians do — try to prove [new] theorems.” He is also serious about teaching and is known for his ability to explain complicated ideas very simply. He has acquired the affectionate reputation of being an absent-minded professor, occasionally getting tricked into divulging test answers prematurely. He confesses that teaching saps a lot of his creative energy: “I’m psyched up about that, not the problem I’m trying to solve.”

Although it is not a prerequisite for success, the ability to concentrate intensely on a single problem for long periods of time is characteristic of some famous thinkers such as Newton. Fefferman likes to “lie down on the sofa for hours at a stretch thinking intently about shapes, relationships and change — rarely about numbers as such. He explores idea after idea in his mind, discarding most. When a concept finally seems promising, he’s ready to try it out on paper. But first he gets up and changes the baby’s diaper.” (That was 1979.) In addition, Fefferman tends not to focus too narrowly on a special problem, but to view it in a larger context and attack it on a broad front. The real power of his approach, and one reason for his remarkable success with difficult problems, is that he sees connections in diverse branches of mathematics that others don’t.

Even for Fefferman, “New ideas are not easy to find. If you are lucky enough to be working on an idea which is actually right, it can take a long time before you know that it’s right. Conversely, if you are going up a blind alley, it can also take a long time before you find out. You can end up saying ‘Oops, I’ve been working for years on something wrong.’ A good mathematician must have the courage to take a lot of work and throw it away.”

The roots of the fields which Fefferman studies are deep in the physical world — vibrations, heat, turbulence. However, the work for which he is best known is abstract (“pure,” theoretical) and a very long way from those applied origins. “We don’t always know why something is important [for applications] or when it will become so. But that does not make it any less significant.” Repeatedly, mathematics done out of sheer intellectual curiosity has, years later, proved to be essential for progress in some other branch of science. For example, Riemann invented 4-dimensional geometry more than 70 years before Einstein needed it to describe his theory of general relativity; and the notion of a modern computer was suggested by questions about the consistency of mathematics in the 1930’s.

According to some theories, most creative scientific work gets done before the age of 30, so Fefferman should be burning out. Fortunately, he is one of many counterexamples to these theories. Through a unique interplay of pure mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer science, he is studying the problem of proving that various physical theories such as quantum mechanics lead to the observable physical phenomena of the everyday world. He likes problems that nobody else has the guts to tackle.

Most of this information was condensed from the “Discovery” column in People Weekly, Oct 15, 1979 by Larry Curnutt.

Last Updated September 22, 2022