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College Stories: Chris Hacon

Christopher Hacon

Christopher Hacon elected to the Royal Society of London.

UNEWS - 2019 - Paul Gabrielsen

Christopher Hacon, McMinn Presidential Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, can now add another honor of a lifetime to his already stellar resume: Election to The Royal Society of London.

Hacon, born in England, is one of 50 eminent scientists elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, along with 10 Foreign Members, in 2019. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. Through its history, the society has named around 1,600 Fellows and Foreign Members, including around 80 Nobel laureates.

“Of course it is a great honor to be elected to the Royal Society and I am very happy and excited for the positive light it sheds on my research and my department,” Hacon said.

“Over the course of the Royal Society’s vast history, it is our fellowship that has remained a constant thread and the substance from which our purpose has been realized: to use science for the benefit of humanity,” said Royal Society president Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in a release. “It is with great honor that I welcome them as Fellows of the Royal Society.”

“Christopher Hacon,” according to the Royal Society’s biography page, “is a mathematician who specializes in the field of algebraic geometry which, loosely speaking, is a branch of mathematics that studies the geometric properties of sets defined by polynomial equations. Together with his co-authors, Hacon has proved many foundational results on the geometry of higher dimensional algebraic varieties including the celebrated result on the finite generation of canonical rings.” Because algebraic geometry is closely connected to other fields within and beyond mathematics, Hacon’s work has had broad impact.

He has been honored with prestigious awards such as the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, the 2016 EH Moore Research Article Prize, the 2015 Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award from the University of Utah, the 2011 Antonio Feltrinelli Prize in Mathematics Mechanics and Applications, the 2009 Frank Nelson Cole Prize in Algebra and the 2007 Clay Research Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Mathematical Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and holds the U’s McMinn Presidential Chair in Mathematics.

Hacon and other newly elected fellows will be formally admitted to the society in July, when they will sign the Charter Book and the Obligation of the Fellows of the Royal Society.

 

Other U connections in the Royal Society

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is the current president of the Royal Society of London (elected as a fellow in 2003). He is a 2009 Nobel laureate and taught at the University of Utah from 1995 to 1999.

Simon Tavaré is the director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. He taught at the University of Utah from 1978 to 1981 and from 1984 to 1989. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2011.

Philip Maini is the director of the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Oxford. He taught at the University of Utah from 1988 to 1990. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2015.

John Knox was a leader in the field of gas chromatography and began working with liquid chromatography after a sabbatical fellowship at the University of Utah in 1964. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984. He died in 2018.


Christopher Hacon

Breakthrough Math with Christopher Hacon.

Aftermath - 2018  

Christopher Hacon, distinguished professor of mathematics at the U, has been interested in math for as long as he can remember. As a child, he loved playing with numbers and would spend hours on a calculator trying to count and figure out things—such as how much all the books in his house cost, or the number of seconds in a year or a lifetime. He particularly enjoyed figuring out patterns and seeing the relationships among numbers.

When he got to college, Hacon thought he would study physics and engineering, but when he was accepted into a prestigious math program, he ran with it and never looked back. 

Awards and Recognition

Today Hacon has carved out a career as one of the world’s top mathematicians and has been recognized with numerous awards for teaching and research. In December 2017, he was awarded a 2018 Breakthrough Prize in mathematics at a star-studded event in Silicon Valley. The Breakthrough Prize recognizes achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics and is one of the most generous prizes given in science. Hacon shares the award with his collaborator and colleague, James McKernan, professor of mathematics at the University of California San Diego.

 In addition to the Breakthrough Prize, Hacon recently was named the first recipient of the McMinn Presidential Endowed Chair in Mathematics at the U, which will allow him to continue his research for the next five years.

Hacon’s research is in algebraic geometry, the field that studies geometric objects defined by polynomial equations. Algebraic geometry connects and elevates algebra, which solves polynomial equations, and geometry, which describes the shapes that arise from those equations.

“I am extremely honored and humbled to receive the Breakthrough Prize and to be awarded the McMinn Chair,” said Hacon. “The work I've done and am doing is the culmination of sustained efforts by many brilliant mathematicians. It is very exciting that the field of birational algebraic geometry and the University of Utah are receiving this kind of recognition.”

Early Life in Italy

Hacon was born in England but moved with his parents to Italy when he was three. His father was a mathematician, too, and served as a postdoctoral scholar in the math department at the University of Pisa. Hacon graduated from the same university and then moved to the United States at age 23 to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of California Los Angeles.

“Italy was a great place to grow up, and I visit when I can,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s never as often as I’d like.”

He arrived at the U as a postdoctoral scholar in 1998 and returned as a professor in 2002.

“One of the things I love about math is that it allows me to find patterns and explain the reasons behind a certain behavior,” said Hacon. “This is really the essence of scientific discovery. All of these patterns are described by numbers. I’m fascinated by them, regardless of their origin. I’m constantly surprised by the power of math and abstract thought in general. It is truly amazing to read a mathematical proof dating back decades or centuries, which is still correct and interesting—both today and in the future.”

Mentors and Teaching

Hacon credits his mentors with providing inspiration and helping him move forward in his career. “While I have been inspired by many people, I have four mentors who have really made a difference in my life. They are Fabrizio Catanese and Fabio Bardelli at the University of Pisa, Robert Lazarsfeld at UCLA, and János Kollár, my postdoctoral advisor at the University of Utah, who now teaches at Princeton.”

Hacon enjoys teaching students at the U and finds the Department of Mathematics is a good place to work. He and his wife, Aleksandra Jovanovic-Hacon, who is a math instructor at the U, are busy raising their six children. They like the outdoors, especially rock climbing, hiking, and skiing.

“Working as a mathematician has been great,” said Hacon. “The academic freedom to pursue my own research goals is one of the biggest rewards I have, as well as working with students and other researchers.”

Hacon hopes to continue his research, while inspiring the next generation of mathematicians. He would love to see his students surpass his efforts and continue to make strides in further exploring and expanding our understanding of algebraic geometry.

Last Updated: 4/25/19