In the final months of 2011, Brian White would occasionally hear a tap on his Stanford University office door. Waiting outside would be two younger mathematicians, Fernando Codá Marques and André Neves, always with the same rough question: Did White have a few minutes to help them understand some confusing part of an obscure, several-hundred-page doctoral dissertation written three decades earlier?

The dissertation, by Jon Pitts, presented powerful machinery for constructing minimal surfaces — structures akin to soap films and bubbles — within a wide variety of shapes. Minimal surfaces, when they can be constructed, offer a lens through which to study the geometry of the surrounding space, and they turn up in a range of scientific settings, from the study of black holes … Read the rest