Sadleirian Professor of Pure Mathematics, John Coates, University of Cambridge, responds to the New Yorker article

Oct. 6, 2006

Howard M. Cooper
Todd & Weld LLP
28 State Street, Boston, MA 02109
hcooper@toddweld.com

October 6, 2006

Dear Mr. Cooper,

I was shocked by the totally unbalanced way in which Yau Shing-Tung was treated in the New Yorker article, and I wanted to write to try and set the record straight on several particularly glaring innaccuracies in it.

Firstly, I believe the article gives a biased and unbalanced view of Yau's early days as a mathematician. I was on the faculty at Stanford when Yau finished at Berkeley, and was appointed to Stanford for his first job. Already, at this very early stage of his career, Chern predicted confidently that Yau would be one of the finest of all differential geometers. I saw at first hand how Yau's arrival at Stanford completely transformed the atmosphere amongst the young group of mathematicians in the Department at Stanford, including people like muself who worked in a different field to Yau. His passion for mathematics and his talents immediately attracted outstanding research students (e.g., Rick Schoen), and inspired us all. His interests were already at that time remarkably broad, and I remember the pleasure I felt when Yau attended an advanced graduate course I taught on number theory.

Secondly, I was a member of the Executive Committee of the International Mathematical Union from 1986–1994, and I want to record here that Yau already wrote formally to the Executive Committee around 1988 about the possibility of having a future International Congress of Mathematicians in Beijing (I remember it very clearly since I was asked to draft the reply to Yau from the Executive Committee pointing out that the next Congress was planned for Kyoto, and that Zurich had already a strong claim to hold the subsequent Congress). This seems far more relevant than the groundless gossip, as usual from unnamed sources, reported in the article which seems to suggest that Yau was opposed in various ways to having the Congress in Beijing.

Finally, and most seriously of all, the article completely misrepresents the titanic contributions Yau has made to Chinese mathematics, and I feel I must briefly say something about these. I know a little about his work in China because Yau has always been uncomprisingly broad in his vision, and has strove to use his influence and institutions to develop all major fields of mathematical research, including number theory (my own area). I think, without doubt, his greatest contribution to Chinese mathematics has been his remarkable success in training a whole new generation of Chinese differential geometers, who are now at the forefront of research in this highly important field, with its links to physics and cosmology. Secondly, he has created from square one, and now directs, important research institutes in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Academy of Science in Beijing, and Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. In each case, he secured through his own efforts the funding for these institutes, built the buildings, and continues to work tirelessly to have excellent research done at them. Thirdly, he has now successfully organized, for the benefit of all Chinese mathematicians around the world, three highly successful International Congresses of Chinese Mathematicians over the last decade in Beijing, Taipei, and Hong Kong. I have had the good fortune to attend all three Congresses, and I am full of admiration of Yau's tireless efforts to get funding for the Congresses and to ensure that all Chinese mathematicians with interesting new research results should be given the opportunity to speak at them. Finally, Yau has been the driving force behind an imaginative scheme to encourage gifted high school students in Hong Kong to get a taste for mathematical research early their lives. This is only a partial list of Yau's work for Chinese mathematics, and I must stress that it lists only those aspects of his which work benefit research in all fields of mathematics. I do not think there is any other living mathematician who can claim to have even a fraction of achievements like these, which are aimed at the good of the whole mathematical community. It is very sad that the article in the New Yorker took no time to mention these great contributions, but wasted much time on gossip and irrelevant stories.

Yours sincerely,

John Coates


Sadleirian Professor of Pure Mathematics,
University of Cambridge.