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Last modified: Monday, April 16, 2012

After successful year of problem-solving, IU mathematician receives Guggenheim fellowship

Nets Katz becomes university's 137th winner since 1925

April 16, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has awarded Indiana University mathematician Nets Katz one of its 180 fellowships in its 88th annual competition for the United States and Canada. Appointed on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, Katz was chosen from a group of almost 3,000 applicants.

A professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Mathematics, Katz last year was credited with resolving a 65-year-old problem in combinatorial geometry that sought to determine the minimum number of distinct distances between any finite set of points in a plane. Building upon decades of work by others, Katz and Larry Guth of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., achieved what many thought was unachievable: Solving Paul Erdös' 1946 Distinct Distances Problem. Then, in joint work with Michael Bateman of the University of California Los Angeles, Katz improved the best known bounds in the cap set problem.

"This is a terrific honor for Nets, and most well-deserved," Mathematics Department chair Kevin Zumbrun said. "This caps a year in which he and co-authors not only solved the long-standing Erdös distance problem, but he also obtained the best known bounds for the cap set problem.

"To Nets' colleagues, this remarkable success confirms what we have observed at close hand over a long period of time: Nets is one of the most original and talented analysts around. He works on extraordinarily difficult problems and he solves them more often than not."

The great variety of backgrounds, fields of study and accomplishments among Guggenheim Fellows is one of the hallmarks of the fellowship program. This year's fellows range in age from 27 to 84, and they originate from towns and cities across the United States and Canada.

Their projects will carry them to all parts of the world. Katz said the $45,000 award would help support a yearlong leave from IU that will include a visit to Cambridge University, where he will spend time with mathematics professor Ben Green, who also specializes in combinatorics.

In all, 62 disciplines and 74 academic institutions are represented by this year's fellows. Fifty-one fellows are unaffiliated or hold adjunct or part-time positions at universities.

Katz, who came to IU in 2004, becomes the 137th Guggenheim Fellow from IU Bloomington since the award was established in 1925. He holds a B.A. in mathematics from Rice University and a Ph.D. in math from the University of Pennsylvania, and he is on the editorial boards of the Indiana University Mathematics Journal and the Online Journal of Analytic Combinatorics.

"The Guggenheim Foundation began as a wonderfully novel experiment. In its first few years, the foundation supported maybe a dozen fellows in a few key fields," Guggenheim Foundation President Edward Hirsch said. "Over the years, its size and impact have grown tremendously. The initial $3 million endowment has ballooned to over $260 million.

"We now give 180 fellowships in some 78 fields, including such disciplines as computer science, astrophysics and African studies. But, to me, the most significant thing about the foundation may be the continuity of our mission, a commitment to funding individuals at the highest level to do the work they were meant to do. We don't support groups or organizations. We have always bet everything on the individual, which seems to me increasingly rare in a corporatized America."

Since its establishment in 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has granted nearly $290 million in fellowships to more than 17,000 individuals. Time and again, the foundation's choice of fellows has proved prescient: Thousands of celebrated alumni and scores of Nobel, Pulitzer and other prizewinners grace its rolls, Hirsch added.

For more information or to speak with Katz, please contact Steve Chaplin, IU Communications, at 812-856-1896 or Tweeting IU science news: @IndianaScience.