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  • Writer's picturePamela Weintraub


Shing-Tung Yau is a force of nature. He is best known for conceiving the math behind string theory—which holds that, at the deepest level of reality, our universe is built out of 10-dimensional, subatomic vibrating strings. But Yau’s genius runs much deeper and wider: He has also spawned the modern synergy between geometry and physics, championed unprecedented teamwork in mathematics, and helped foster an intellectual rebirth in China.

Despite growing up in grinding poverty on a Hong Kong farm, Yau made his way to the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with Chinese geometer Shiing-Shen Chern and the master of nonlinear equations, Charles Morrey. Then at age 29 Yau proved the Calabi conjecture, which posits that six-dimensional spaces lie hidden beneath the reality we perceive. These unseen dimensions lend rigor to string theory by supplementing the four dimensions—three of space and one of time—described in Einstein’s general relativity.

Since then Yau has held positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Stanford University, and Harvard (where he currently chairs the math department), training two generations of grad students and embarking on far-flung collaborations that address topics ranging from the nature of dark matter to the formation of black holes. He has won the Fields Medal, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Wolf Prize.

Through it all, Yau has remained bluntly outspoken. In China he has called for the resignation of academia’s old guard so new talent can rise. In the United States he has critiqued what he sees as rampant errors in mathematical proofs by young academics. Yau has also strived to speak directly to the public; his book The Shape of Inner Space, coauthored with Steve Nadis, is scheduled for publication this fall. He reflected on his life and work with DISCOVER senior editor Pamela Weintraub at his Harvard office over four days in February.

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