Photo: Heo Jun-i. Credit: Quanta Magazine.
Heo Jun-i 허준이 (also known as June Huh), professor of mathematics at Princeton University and Korea Institute of Advanced Studies 고등과학원, won the 2022 Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics which is given every four years.
Heo, a Korean American who was born in the United States but grew up in South Korea and eventually attended Seoul National University 국립서울대학교, is the first Korean or Korean American to win the prize. Heo was one of four winners this year; the other winners were Hugo Duminil-Copin of University of Geneva, James Maynard of Oxford University, and Maryna Viazovska of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.
Heo, who is considered to have opened new horizons on algebraic geometry, won the award for “bringing the ideas of Hodge theory to combinatorics, the proof of the Dowling–Wilson conjecture for geometric lattices, the proof of the Heron–Rota–Welsh conjecture for matroids, the development of the theory of Lorentzian polynomials, and the proof of the strong Mason conjecture” according to the International Mathematical Union which selects the winners.
Heo is a remarkable late bloomer. Born in Stanford, California where both of his parents were graduate students, Heo returned at age 2 to South Korea, where his father worked as a professor of statistics at Korea University 고려대학교 and his mother as a professor of Russian language and literature at SNU.
In 8th grade, Heo’s guidance counselor said it was too late for him to try for the International Mathematical Olympiad. Convinced that he was not good at math, Heo dropped out of high school to write poetry, then later took the GED to major in physics at SNU. Heo took six years to graduate college, as he failed too many classes.
When he began developing an interest in math thanks to professor Hironaka Heisuke (himself a Fields Medal winner of 1970) who was teaching at SNU at the time, only one graduate school in the United States accepted him because of his poor grades.
Commenting on the rarity of Heo’s achievement, Quanta Magazine said it was “almost as improbable as if he had picked up a tennis racket at 18 and won Wimbledon at 20. It’s the kind of out-of-nowhere journey that simply doesn’t happen in mathematics today, where it usually takes years of specialized training even to be in a position to make new discoveries.”