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Vanderbilt mathematician wins Sloan research fellowship

Apr. 2, 2009, 3:09 PM

An assistant professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt University has won a $50,000 research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation aimed at encouraging promising young scholars.

Jesse Peterson is one of 118 researchers in physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, neuroscience and economics chosen at the early stages of their careers because of their “exceptional promise to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.” The recipients can use the grant money to pursue any research that interests them.

Peterson, who came to Vanderbilt in 2008, studies von Neumann algebras, a mathematical object created in the 1920s by the legendary mathematician John von Neumann to describe quantum mechanics, the theory that was developed to explain the paradoxical behavior of sub-atomic particles. Since then, the resulting theory of “operator algebras” has become an exciting and influential mathematical research area on its own.

Peterson’s adviser, Sorin Popa of UCLA, pioneered a new technique for studying von Neumann algebras, known as deformation/rigidity theory. (Mathematically speaking, a circle is highly deformable because it remains the same when rotated by any angle, while a square is quite rigid because it remains unchanged only when you rotate it by 90, 180, 270 or 360 degrees.) Peterson has introduced a kind of weak rigidity, called L2 rigidity, that has had a major impact in the field. His paper “L2–rigidity in von Neumann algebras” appeared recently in the leading mathematics journal Inventiones Mathematicae.

“Peterson is a young star in von Neumann algebras,” said Dietmar Bisch, professor and chair of mathematics. “Peterson’s Sloan Award underscores the recognition that his work has already received and the promise it holds. It is exciting for the department to have him as a colleague.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit institution based in New York, was established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan, Jr., then president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation. Sloan Research Fellowships have been awarded since 1955. Since then, 38 Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in their fields and 14 have received the Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics.

Contact: David F. Salisbury, (615) 343-6803