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Simon Donaldson's secondary school education was at Sevenoaks School in Kent which he attended from 1970 to 1975. He then entered Pembroke College, Cambridge where he studied until 1980, receiving his B.A. in 1979. One of his tutors at Cambridge described him as a very good student but certainly not the top student in his year. Apparently he would always come to his tutorials carrying a violin case.
In 1980 Donaldson began postgraduate work at Worcester College, Oxford, first under Nigel Hitchen's supervision and later under Atiyah's supervision. Atiyah writes in :-
In 1982, when he was a second-year graduate student, Simon Donaldson proved a result that stunned the mathematical world.This result was published by Donaldson in a paper Self-dual connections and the topology of smooth 4-manifolds which appeared in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in 1983. Atiyah continues his description of Donaldson's work :-
Together with the important work of Michael Freedman ..., Donaldson's result implied that there are "exotic" 4-spaces, i.e. 4-dimensional differentiable manifolds which are topologically but not differentiably equivalent to the standard Euclidean 4-space R. What makes this result so surprising is that n = 4 is the only value for which such exotic n-spaces exist. These exotic 4-spaces have the remarkable property that (unlike R) they contain compact sets which cannot be contained inside any differentiably embedded 3-sphere!After being awarded his doctorate from Oxford in 1983, Donaldson was appointed a Junior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He spent the academic year 1983-84 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, After returning to Oxford he was appointed Wallis Professor of Mathematics in 1985, a position he continues to hold.
Donaldson has received many honours for his work. He received the Junior Whitehead Prize from the London Mathematical Society in 1985. In the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and, also in 1986, he received a Fields Medal at the International Congress at Berkeley. In 1991 Donaldson received the Sir William Hopkins Prize from the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Then, the following year, he received the Royal Medal from the Royal Society. He also received the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1994:-
... for his fundamental investigations in four-dimensional geometry through application of instantons, in particular his discovery of new differential invariants ...Atiyah describes the contribution which led to Donaldson's award of a Fields Medal in . He sums up Donaldson's contribution:-
When Donaldson produced his first few results on 4-manifolds, the ideas were so new and foreign to geometers and topologists that they merely gazed in bewildered admiration. Slowly the message has gotten across and now Donaldson's ideas are beginning to be used by others in a variety of ways. ... Donaldson has opened up an entirely new area; unexpected and mysterious phenomena about the geometry of 4-dimensions have been discovered. Moreover the methods are new and extremely subtle, using difficult nonlinear partial differential equations. On the other hand, this theory is firmly in the mainstream of mathematics, having intimate links with the past, incorporating ideas from theoretical physics, and tying in beautifully with algebraic geometry.The article  is very interesting and provides both a collection of reminiscences by Donaldson on how he came to make his major discoveries while a graduate student at Oxford and also a survey of areas which he has worked on in recent years. Donaldson writes in  that nearly all his work has all come under the headings:-
(1) Differential geometry of holomorphic vector bundles. (2) Applications of gauge theory to 4-manifold topology.and he relates his contribution to that of many others in the field.
Donaldson's work in summed up by R Stern in :-
In 1982 Simon Donaldson began a rich geometrical journey that is leading us to an exciting conclusion to this century. He has created an entirely new and exciting area of research through which much of mathematics passes and which continues to yield mysterious and unexpected phenomena about the topology and geometry of smooth 4-manifolds.
References (5 books/articles)
References elsewhere in this archive:
Simon K Donaldson was elected to the Royal Society in 1986. You can see a history of the Royal Society and a list of members among the mathematicians in our archive.
He won a Fields Medal in 1986. You can see a history of the Fields Medal and a list of winners.
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