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Oscar Zariski

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

For his creation of a rigorous abstract theory of algebraic geometry, and for his profound influence–especially through many brilliant students–on the algebraic structure of contemporary pure mathematics.

When Ascher Zaritsky left his home in Ukraine to study in Rome, he changed his name to the more Italian-sounding “Oscar Zariski” with the goal of blending in.

Instead, the Jewish atheist found himself standing out, often at odds with the theories of the Italian mathematicians he once admired.

“You are here with us but are not one of us,” they would say.

When fascism surfaced in Italy, Zariski and his ideas fled to America.

At Johns Hopkins University, he published “Algebraic Surfaces” in 1935. The landmark textbook laid the foundations for the integration of topology – the study of different kinds of spaces – into algebraic geometry.

Zariski joined the Harvard faculty in 1947. By the time he retired in 1970, he had filled holes left by classical theory, establishing himself as an undisputed leader in algebra and algebraic geometry.

Or, as he describes it: “The geometric paradise was lost once and for all.”