David Mumford receives the US National Medal of Science

Our friend and colleague David Mumford is among this year’s recipients of the US National Medals of Science.

With Mathematics, “you can discover things (on your own) … You don’t have to get Ferdinand and Isabella to give you a boat to sail across the ocean.”

But David Mumford is no ordinary mathematician.

He began his career in pure mathematics, specifically in studying the moduli spaces of curves and algebraic varieties. But with a Fields medal in his pocket (awarded here in Vancouver in 1974), he started to collaborate in the past two decades, with computer scientists, psychologists, and neuro-biologists and sought the “right” mathematics for describing the problems of perception. His work has focused on computer vision, pattern theory, and the mathematical modeling of shape.

David Mumford is no ordinary human being. In 2008 he was awarded the Wolf Prize; on receiving the prize in Jerusalem from Shimon Peres, Mumford announced that he was donating the prize money to Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, and to Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement.

Mumford is no ordinary scientist. He is a visionary. In a paper titled The Dawning of the Age of Stochasticity, he challenged us by stating that the current model of mathematics driven by Aristotelian logic (of precision and definiteness) has run its course and that “probability theory and statistical inference now emerge as better foundations for scientific models, especially those of the process of thinking and as essential ingredients of theoretical mathematics, even the foundations of mathematics itself.”

Mumford is no ordinary scholar. He chases the roots of mathematics across centuries and civilizations in Babylon, India, China, Greece, Islam and the Renaissance. Always looking for beauty. “Our dream is that this book (Indra’s pearls) will reveal to a larger audience that mathematics is not alien, cold and remote but just a very human exploration of the patterns of the world, one which thrives on play and surprise and beauty.”

Mumford has already a collection of honorary degrees, awards, and other honors. He is a member of several learned societies, including the London Mathematical Society and the National Academy of Sciences. Mumford was a MacArthur Fellow from 1987 to 1992 and served as president of the International Mathematical Union from 1995 to 1998. He won the Shaw Prize in 2006. In 2007 he was awarded the Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition by the American Mathematical Society.

This year’s recipients of the US National Medal of Science are:

Yakir Aharonov, Chapman University, CA
Stephen J. Benkovic, Pennsylvania State University, PA
Esther M. Conwell, University of Rochester, NY
Marye Anne Fox, University of California San Diego, CA
Susan L. Lindquist, Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
Mortimer Mishkin, National Institutes of Health, MD
David B. Mumford, Brown University, RI
Stanley B. Prusiner, University of California San Francisco, CA
Warren M. Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research, CO
Amnon Yariv, California Institute of Technology, CA

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