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UR professor solves 50-year-old geometry riddle

Douglas Ravenel, Fayerweather Professor of Mathematics, received the 2022 Veblen Prize in Geometry from the American Mathematical Society, photographed in Hylan Hall November 3, 2021.
J. Adam Fenster
/
University of Rochester
Douglas Ravenel, Fayerweather Professor of Mathematics, received the 2022 Veblen Prize in Geometry from the American Mathematical Society, photographed in Hylan Hall November 3, 2021.

Doug Ravenel, the Fayerweather professor of Mathematics at the University of Rochester, has earned a prestigious honor.

Together with his colleagues Michael Hill at the University of California and Michael Hopkins from Harvard, Ravenel was recently awarded the Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry.

This was for solving the Kervaire Invariant Problem, a geometry quandary that has puzzled mathematicians for 50 years.

"It was the biggest surprise of my mathematical life," Ravenel said. "I was not expecting this."

The Kervaire Invariant Problem is in the realm of algebraic topology, a field of mathematics that studies the transformation of geometric objects.

Ravenel said the trio solved the problem quite by accident. They were working on an entirely different problem when they gained some new insights that allowed them to untangle the Kervaire question.

"I like to compare it to going on a hike in the Alps and finding a path up Mt. Everest," he explained. "You don't expect to get up Mt. Everest through the Alps, but that's kind of what happened to us. It's kind of a serendipitous discovery."

Click on the link above to hear an interview with Ravenel.