August 25, 2006

The mathematical Itô and the phonological Itô

The obvious question most theoretical linguists will ask on learning that Kiyosi Itô has been announced as the first winner of the new Gauss Prize in mathematics (a major $11,500 prize established by the International Mathematical Union, comparable to a Nobel for mathematicians) is whether perhaps — given that unusual circumflex accent used to mark length on the final vowel — he might be some relation of Junko Itô, my phonologist colleague in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz (and my department chair until this past June 30). And the answer is yes. It is Junko's dad. Junko flew to Kyoto to be with her family before the award became public, and the plan was for the whole family to fly from there to Spain to be present at the public award ceremony at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid this week. However, Kiyosi Itô (who is 90 now) was not in good enough health for such a long flight, so Junko went to the ceremony to receive the award from the King of Spain on her father's behalf, and thus became one of the very few linguists to receive a congratulatory handshake from a reigning monarch (there is a photo of it on page 5 of the August 23 ICM Daily News). Best wishes from Language Log to the whole Itô family: Kiyosi's stunning work in creating stochastic differential equations and founding the study of mathematical operations on stochastic processes (the Itô calculus, originating as far back as the mid-1940s) is long overdue for recognition at this level. And if there was a special award for being a fine phonological theorist, a dedicated administrator, and a great colleague, then Junko would be collecting a prize for herself.

Update: The above was modified when I learned after posting it that the family's plans had changed and Kiyosi had not been able to attend the ceremony in Madrid.

Incidentally, this meant that two honored awardees were absent fromthe congress of the International Mathematical Union, as you'll read in the newsletter: the chosen winner of the Fields Medal (awarded every four years to a mathematician under 40 who has done truly ground-breaking work) was Grigori Perelman of St Petersburg, Russia, but he simply refused to come to the congress, or accept the medal at all, despite extraordinary efforts by the president of the IMU to persuade him. Perelman doesn't want a medal. It is not even clear that he will accept the Clay Institute prize of $1 million for his solution to the Poincaré conjecture if it is offered to him. He simply wants to have correctly proved the conjecture. No one has ever declined the Fields Medal before.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 25, 2006 02:12 AM