John Baez, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Riverside, and UC Riverside alumnus John Huerta will receive the 2013 Levi L. Conant Prize from the American Mathematical Society (AMS).
Established in 2000 and presented annually, the prestigious prize recognizes the best expository research paper published in either the Notices of the AMS or the Bulletin of the AMS in the preceding five years.
Baez and his former graduate student Huerta will be awarded the prize on Jan. 10, 2013 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego, Calif., for their article "The algebra of grand unified theories," which appeared in the Bulletin of the AMS in July 2010.
The Standard Model of particle physics, one of the central theoretical constructs of twentieth century physics, attempts to describe all particles and all the forces of nature except gravity. While the model seems complicated and somewhat arbitrary, it has been very successful in describing mathematically what we see in reality. The article by Baez and Huerta focuses on a key mathematical ingredient in this research, namely, group representation theory. The authors take on the daunting task of conveying decades of work in one, relatively short article—and they succeed.
Baez was an undergraduate at Princeton and got his Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT in 1986. After a two-year postdoctoral appointment at Yale, he was hired by UC Riverside. Until recently he worked on higher category theory and quantum gravity. His internet column "This Week's Finds" dates back to 1993 and is sometimes called the world's first blog. In 2010, concerned about climate change and the future of the planet, he switched to working on more practical topics and started the Azimuth Project, an international collaboration to create a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet.
Currently Baez is studying network theory. Many branches of applied mathematics use diagrams to study complex networks made of interacting parts. Electrical circuit diagrams are the most famous example, but similar diagrams appear in chemistry, biology, computer science and many other fields.
"By treating these in a general, unified way, we can take techniques developed in any one of these areas and, with luck, apply it to problems in other areas," Baez explained.
Currently at the Instituto Superior Tecnico in Lisbon, Portugal, Huerta graduated from UCR in 2011 with a Ph.D. in mathematics. Though he studied mathematics, he is deeply interested in physics, deriving inspiration from it. This interest, which began with a popular astronomy book his sister gave him when he was a child, evolved into a fascination with stars, physical laws, and eventually the underlying mathematics and its conceptual interplay.