Who Are the Simons Investigators in Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science?

Manjul Bhargava had already gained fame in the mathematics world as a number theorist and the second-youngest person to earn the rank of full professor at Princeton University. But his stock rose again when he was named to a heavyweight list of academics who earned one of the Simons Foundation's first round of awards as part of a new program meant to support theoretical scientists. (See Simons Foundation: Grants for Science Research).

The foundation recently launched the Simons Investigators in Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science program. Along with the notoriety comes enviable cash support — $100,000 per year for research purposes, plus another $10,000 for the academic department and 20% for the institution, for five years. If the foundation likes what it sees, it can renew the funding for another five years.

For Bhargava and the 20 other researchers who won the Simon's support, the award offers a chance to pursue science at its most basic level. The award is completely open-ended — there is no research proposal; in fact, the recipients are nominated by others and did not know they were under consideration until they had won — so it represents a boost to the ground-breaking work they were already doing. (Read Simons Math and Physical Sciences director, Yuri Tschinkel's IP profile).

In Bhargava's case, this means puzzling through seemingly intractable problems in the field of number theory, which focuses on the integers. He gained fame for his Ph.D. thesis, which expanded on a line of work that was started by Johann Gauss but had not seen any significant advances in two centuries. More recently, he has studied the link between mathematics and physics, as well as sequences of numbers that are as important for the advancement of applications like cryptography as they are for theoretical mathematics.

"We are watching him very closely. He is going to be a superstar," Princeton professor Peter Sarnak told Popular Science magazine early in Bhargava’s career. "He’s amazingly mature mathematically. He is changing the subject in a fundamental way."

Bhargava's company includes a group of mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists who did not know they were even under consideration. That's part of the program's secretive and selective design. For the 2013 awards, the foundation asked 90 universities to submit their best researchers tackling long-term projects that address fundamental issues in their fields. Run by Berkeley mathematician David Eisenbud, the program then relies on a panel to narrow the list of nominations and choose the most worthy recipients.

The Simons Foundation has other programs that grant-seekers can solicit directly for funding, but it appears the new Simons Investigators initiative will benefit those who focus their efforts on moving the frontiers of math and science forward — just as the foundation intended.