Face of Flanders: Jean Bourgain


The Ostend-born mathematician has received the prestigious Breakthrough Prize, dubbed the "Silicon Valley Nobel Prize"

"Mathematics is labour"

At a televised event in San Francisco last week, closely resembling an Oscar ceremony, Ostend-born mathematician Jean Bourgain received the Breakthrough Prize in mathematics. Actor Morgan Freeman was the host of the event, and actor Jeremy Irons presented Bourgain with his trophy.

The names of some of the creators of the Breakthrough Prize might also ring a bell: Google founder Sergey Brin and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, among others. The prize, worth $3 million (€2.8 million), rewards exceptional scientific performances and has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley Nobel Prize”.

Bourgain, 62, received the award for his ground-breaking work in disciplines such as number theory, high-dimensional geometry and partial differential equations. That might sound complicated, and it is.

“He is especially good at solving mathematical problems that are a mystery to others,” professor Dirk Huylebrouck of the University of Leuven told De Standaard. “Fewer than 100 people in the world understand his theories.”

As a child, however, Bourgain didn’t seem to be a prodigy at all. He started speaking later than most children and didn’t get great marks in primary school. But when he was 15, one of his teachers discovered his mathematical genius.

From then on, things escalated quickly. At the age of 23, Bourgain had earned a PhD in mathematics at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He became a full professor four years later. In 1985, he went to teach in France, but it was in the US that he found his ideal working space.

For the last 22 years, Bourgain has worked at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, in the US. The institute was founded in 1930 and had Albert Einstein as one of its first professors. IAS is unique in that its scientists can focus completely on fundamental research, without pressure to publish or to give lectures.

Among his many prizes and recognitions, Bourgain won the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ famed Crafoord Prize for mathematics in 2012. Last year, King Filip gave him the title of baron.

The award ceremony was one of the scholar’s rare public appearances. When Huylebrouck once invited him to a scientific celebration, Bourgain answered: “A party? Mathematics is labour.”