The Mathematical Problem of Stolen Medals
Field Medal winner’s medal gets stolen at the ceremony

Most achievements around the world are usually accompanied with an award and commemorated by a trophy or a medal. We are familiar with the sight of gold, silver and bronze medals in sports – awarded to individuals or a team for achieving first, second or third position, respectively, in various sporting competitions. The winners hold on to their medals for life, a permanent reminder of success that stemmed from years of hard work and perseverance. And then there are those, whose medals get stolen simply for the sake of the value associated with their composition. The 2018 Fields Medal ceremony, hosted for the first time in a Latin American city, faced such an incident that thwarted the limelight associated with the event and cast a grim shadow over the location.

The prestigious Fields Medal recognizes outstanding mathematical achievements of candidates younger than 40 years of age, and is often dubbed as the “Nobel Prize for Mathematics”. Awarded every four years, it’s considered to be the Holy Grail among mathematicians worldwide. In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani of Iran became the first woman to win the award in a predominantly male-dominated discipline. In 2006, Grigori Perelman of Russia, who proved the Poincaré conjecture – one of the seven Millennium Prize problems, refused the medal and didn’t attend the ceremony.

The 2018 Field Medal ceremony was hosted in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the first in a Latin American city. Four mathematicians from diverse background and different fields were awarded the medal – a monumental achievement for their lifelong dedication and devotion to the discipline. The most notable among the winners was Caucher Birkar, the 40-year old specialist in algebraic geometry from Cambridge University. He was born in the ethnic-Kurdish province of Marivan, near the Iran-Iraq border. Birkar sought political asylum while studying in Tehran University, amid growing political distress in Iran. He was eventually granted British citizenship, where he established himself as an exceptional mathematical mind.

Less than an hour after being awarded the 14-karat gold medal, Birkar’s briefcase, which contained the medal, was reported missing. The local police were notified, as they arrived en-masse to conduct a thorough search of individuals attending the event. The organizer behind the event, the International Congress of Mathematicians, said it “profoundly regrets” the incident. The group assisted the police and provided them images from the event to be scrutinized. Overall, the incident was an embarrassment for the Brazilian city, known for its exceptionally high crime rate.

Incidences of highly valued medals being stolen have occurred in the past. In 2004, a large collection of medals and trophies were stolen from the International Swimming Hall of Fame in the United States. Although the thief managed to sell the bulk of the collection on eBay, most of them were returned in 2005 after the theft was discovered.

The incident also subdued Birkar, who was ecstatic after winning the award. Citing his roots, he said, “Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics” and hoped that his win will put a smile on the faces of its citizens and inspire them to pursue their dreams. He also said, “To go from there to the point where someday I hold a medal myself — I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true.” Sadly, he couldn’t hold the medal for over an hour, as it was stolen from him in a meaningless act of greed.