SOME mathematicians devote their lives to just one problem, like Andrew Wiles, the British professor who spent seven years on Fermat's Last Theorem before solving it to acclaim in 1993.
Australia's maths superstar, Professor Terence Tao, is the exact opposite. He has dozens of very different problems in the back of his mind. If he can't see his way to solving one within a week or two, he moves on. "Even if the problem is tremendously exciting I will feel inclined to shelve it and work on other problems," he says.
Months later, he tries again with a fresh perspective and any new mathematical tricks he has picked up. His breadth of achievement as a result saw Tao, 31, this week honoured as a "supreme problem-solver" and awarded mathematics' highest honour, a Fields Medal.
"The way he crosses areas would be like the best heart surgeon also being exceptional in brain surgery," says Professor Tony Chan, of the University of California in Los Angeles, where Tao works.
His "beautiful work" on a problem known as Horn's conjecture is "akin to a leading English-language novelist suddenly producing the definitive Russian novel," says the panel which awarded him the prize.
"Terry is like Mozart; mathematics just flows out of him," says Professor John Garnett, also of UCLA. "He's probably the best mathematician in the world now."
Amid the profuse praise, the only people questioning Tao's award - the first for an Australian in the 70-year history of the prize - are the man and his family. "I think surprised is probably my dominant reaction," Tao said just before being handed his medal by King Juan Carlos of Spain, in Madrid.
His mother, Grace, in Adelaide, agrees. "He has worked very hard. But there are so many other mathematicians who have done wonderful things. I'm a bit surprised."
It's a modesty born from adjusting to a lifetime of extraordinary achievement since Tao first revealed himself as a child prodigy at two by learning to read from Sesame Street on TV. His lack of arrogance or conceit also explains his widely accepted popularity. "Everybody likes him," says Garnett.
High achievers like Tao are both born and made, says Dr Glenison Alsop, a psychologist with the CHIP Foundation in Melbourne, which helps children of high intellectual potential. "It's a case of nature and nurture."
With a one-in-a-million IQ score of 220, Tao inherited a lucky combination of genes from his father Billy, a pediatrician, and his mother, a former mathematics teacher, who have two other highly talented sons.