Subhash Khot, Playing Unique Games in Washington Square Park

Grand ideas have a way of turning up in unusual settings, far from an office or a chalkboard. Months ago, Quanta Magazine set out to photograph some of the world’s most accomplished scientists and mathematicians, including Subhash Khot, former Member in the School of Mathematics, in their favorite places to think, tinker and create. This series explores the role of cherished spaces — public or private, spare or crowded, inside or out — in clearing a path to inspiration.

As a Princeton University graduate student in 2001, Subhash Khot was visiting his family in India and thinking about his research on the limits of computation when he came up with a good, if seemingly modest, idea. He was thinking about an analytic theorem that former Member Johan Håstad, one his mentors, had formulated (and Jean Bourgain, IBM von Neumann Professor, had proved) and how it could be applied to the “hardness of approximation.” But there was a missing ingredient. . . . Khot realized that the missing ingredient was an existing problem called Unique Games.

As a theorist, Khot is able to work anywhere — with his relatives in India, in bustling New York City cafes, even in movie theaters. But his favorite thinking place is Washington Square Park, just across the street from his NYU office and the faculty apartment where he lives with his wife and son. “My work is mainly thinking and for the most part, I am stuck and not making progress,” he said. “If I were in the office, I would just get bored and doze off.”

Read more at Quanta.