No Longer Just Conjecture

UChicago math star Aaron Brown, Ph.D. '11, has made a breakthrough on a long-dormant mathematical conjecture. He credits Tufts with putting him on the path to success. 

Zimmer’s Conjecture is as complex as it sounds. Dormant for more than a decade, the equation was abandoned by the brightest mathematical minds at the University of Chicago—until Aaron Brown, Math Ph.D. ’11, and his colleagues stepped in. A postdoctoral researcher and tenure-track assistant professor in the math department at UChicago, Brown presented what one fellow professor called the biggest breakthrough ever on Zimmer’s program.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Chicago Aaron Brown, Ph.D. '11

The conjecture is a study of symmetry—to put it in the simplest layman’s term—that was begun in the early 80s by UChicago’s now-president and then-professor of mathematics, Robert Zimmer. About ten years ago, when the easiest of the theorems from the program had been solved, researchers moved on to other equations outside of the program. But in the fall of 2016, Brown and a few fellow UChicago researchers took a crack at the conjecture. The work will be the subject of an upcoming workshop at UCLA, as well as featured in a presentation at the Seminaire Nicolas Bourbaki in Paris.

“It is kind of a strange thing because we’re proving something that doesn’t exist,” Brown says, humbly adding that he is just one of many who have gone on from the Tufts doctoral program to do great research.

Boris Hasselblatt, Brown’s former advisor, says Brown was the full package from day one—and this success was inevitable. In Brown’s third year at Tufts, Hasselblatt says Brown, at times, was practically running the professor’s dynamical systems seminar. “The maturity to discern the potential of this subject (in both respects) was quite impressive and what one would expect of a strong postdoc. The ease with which he effectively taught a topics course on a subject new to him was amazing.”

Of the name Brown has continued to make for himself in the mathematical community, and as an ambassador for Tufts, Hasselblatt remembers, “Robert Zimmer was an instructor in our department when he was a graduate student. His perception of Tufts is definitely much deepened by meeting Aaron as a central contributor to breaking a logjam on the Zimmer program.” A pursuit the best and the brightest minds had given up on—until a Jumbo came along.

“How many theorems must Aaron Brown prove before he gets to graduate?” was a popular trope among the students and professors during Brown’s tenure as a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts.

Brown came to the Hill with a number of publications under his belt, written solely by him. He stood out in a strong field, Hasselblatt remembers. “I came to appreciate his creativity, his deep thinking, his incredibly fast uptake of new techniques, and his vision to where to put these talents to bear.” Brown credits his success to a love of math that began as simply as it continues: “I’ve always wanted to learn more, and it’s never stopped.”

Originally from Vermont with an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, Brown says Tufts was the right place for him at the right time. The small department, intimate faculty relationships, and the path it set him on were what he valued most. Hasselblatt connected him to a collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania that, Brown says, really started his research career. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Boris and Tufts.”