PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — David Mumford, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown, has been awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. Mumford will receive the medal from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony later this year. The White House announced the 2010 recipients today.
“As collaborator and catalyst, David Mumford was an early contributor to fields of inquiry that have blossomed at Brown — brain science, computer vision, neurobiology, cognitive science, the biology and psychology of perception — and to his own areas of pure and applied mathematics,” said Brown President Ruth J. Simmons. “He continues to inspire collaborators in many fields, former students now in productive careers, and his professional colleagues in the United States and abroad.”
The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in August 1959 to be conferred directly by the President. President John F. Kennedy presented the inaugural medal to engineer and physicist Theodore von Kármán of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in February 1963.
Previous recipients include behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, geneticist Barbara McClintock, immunologist Linus Pauling, aeronautical engineer Wernher von Braun, cosmologist James Van Allen, molecular biologist James D. Watson, and mathematician Oscar Zariski, who was Mumford’s thesis adviser. In all, 441 distinguished scientists have received the National Medal of Science.
Born in Sussex, England, Mumford studied mathematics at Harvard University (B.A., magna cum laude, 1957; Ph.D, 1961) and began his academic career at Harvard.
Mumford’s contributions to mathematics fundamentally changed algebraic geometry and brought him a variety of honors including the Fields Medal, the highest award in mathematics (1974) and, later, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (1987-92). He is perhaps best known for inventing geometric invariant theory, a key tool in moduli theory, the study of how the geometric structures in algebraic geometry vary. His subsequent studies on the moduli space of curves have been been an important tool in string theory.
“For the first half of my career — about 20 years — I worked in pure math, although I always had lots of interests outside of that,” Mumford said. A conversation with a collaborator in Italy led to his decision to turn toward applied mathematics, which he did while still at Harvard. His interest in applied math and his dedication to a collaborative approach helped develop “a really terrific group jointly at Harvard, MIT, and Brown.” He joined the Brown faculty in 1996 as a University professor in the Division of Applied Mathematics.
Mumford’s work in computer vision and pattern theory introduced new mathematical tools and models from analysis and differential geometry. His work in neurobiology in collaboration with Tai Sing Lee led to new insights about the nature of computation in the human brain, and he helped start Brown’s vigorous interdisciplinary Brain Science Program with John Donoghue, Elie Bienenstock, Stuart Geman, and others.
As emeritus professor of applied mathematics, Mumford continues as one of Brown’s most celebrated scholars. He received the Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences in 2006, the Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition in 2007, and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Mathematics in 2008, the latter presented by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
He is turning his attention once again to pure mathematics and to the history of mathematics. He divides his time between Maine, where he and his wife have a home, and Providence, where his son Jeremy is a visiting professor of history at Brown, and his daughter-in-law, Sohini Ramachandran, is an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
He also maintains collaborations and communication with professional colleagues, whose work he values and understands. While honored and grateful for his most recent honor, Mumford keeps those colleagues in his thoughts. “I did some nice things, but so did a lot of other people,” he said. “I’m pleased that this medal will bring attention to the important role of science and mathematics in our society.”