In 1977, math professor Victor Kac was a refugee from the Soviet Union living in Rome. As he was awaiting a U.S. visa so he could begin teaching at MIT, he met Claudio Procesi, an algebra professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, and other Italian mathematicians who set him up with a room in a family member’s home and helped him with paid talks in Pisa and with traveling throughout Italy. He said that those professors became his lifelong friends.
More than 40 years later, he will return to Rome in November to be inducted as a foreign member of the Accademia Nationale dei Lincei, the Italian National Academy of Sciences, which is the oldest science academy in the world.
Founded in 1603, the Italian institution counts Galileo Galilei as among its first members. Other distinguished members have included Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Erwin Schrodinger.
“I was quite surprised and profoundly honored,” says Kac, who joins only 20 other Accademia foreign members in math, such as Fields medalists Pierre Deligne, Pierre-Louis Lions, David Mumford, and Shing-Tung Yau.
Kac works in several areas of algebra and mathematical physics related to symmetries. “Victor’s development of Kac-Moody algebras has continued implications for mathematics, as well as theoretical physics research,” says Michael Sipser, dean of the MIT School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics. “His work developing an algebraic theory of integrable systems, as well as his theory of Lie superalgebras, make him more than deserving of this extraordinary honor.”
The academy is composed of 540 members elected on the basis of their scientific merit by its national members: 180 Italian members, 180 Italian corresponding members, and 180 foreign members.
“To the best of my knowledge, Victor is the first MIT mathematician to receive this honor,” says Michel Goemans, head of the Department of Mathematics. Two other MIT professors are members of the academy: Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Professor Emeritus Emilio Bizzi, who was born in Rome, and Palermo native Silvio Micali, Ford Professor of Engineering in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. So is Kac’s friend Procesi.