From the age of five, Stephen Smale lived on a farm in Michigan. For eight years, Stephen attended an elementary school with a single classroom where one teacher educated children of all ages. In high school, Smale’s favorite subject quickly became chemistry, and later on physics. But after failing a college physics course at the University of Michigan, his passion turned to mathematics.

Smale began his career as an instructor at the college at the University of Chicago. His work pushed the boundaries of mathematics. Smale was the first to create an existence proof for crease-free sphere eversion, the process of turning a sphere inside out in a three-dimensional space. His discoveries in the field range from the Poincaré conjecture to Morse theory to strange attractors that describe the behavior of a dynamical system.

Later in his career, Smale compiled a list of 18 problems in mathematics to be solved in the 21st century, known as ‘Smale’s problems.’ His list was compiled in the spirit of Hilbert’s famous list of problems produced in 1900, and contains some of the original Hilbert problems, including the Riemann hypothesis and the second half of Hilbert’s sixteenth problem, both of which are still unsolved.

By Jen Santisi