Yau was born in Shantou, Guangdong Province, China with an ancestry in Jiaoling in a family of eight children.When Yau was fourteen his father, a philosophy professor, died. Yau moved to Hong Kong with his family where, after graduating from , he studied mathematics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1966 to 1969. He undertook graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where his advisor was Shiing-Shen Chern. After receiving his Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1971, he spent a post-doctoral year at the Institute for Advanced Study. He then spent two years as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
In 1974 he was appointed a professor at Stanford University. In 1976 he proved on a class of manifolds now named Calabi-Yau manifolds, which has now become the geometric ground where physicists build their string theory. He returned to the Institute for Advanced Study as a professor in 1979. In that year, together with his former doctoral student Richard Schoen, he proved the positive energy theorem in general relativity. From 1984 to 1987 he was a professor at . In 1987 he moved to Harvard University, where he remains. Yau has served as the chair of the Harvard mathematics department since 2008.
His revolutionary use of the methods of partial differential equations in the area of differential geometry has had a lasting impact on geometry.
Educational and research activities
Yau is renowned as an energetic teacher and educator. He has advised more than 50 PhD students, with many of them receiving professorships. His book with Richard M. Schoen, ''Lectures on Differential Geometry'', is a popular text for students of differential geometry and geometric analysis. In other works, he has collected hundreds of unsolved problems in geometry and topology. In the 1990s, Kefeng Liu,Bong Lian and Yau wrote a series of papers on the mirror conjecture and its generalizations. During 2005, Kefeng Liu，Xiaofeng Sun and Yau systematically studied the geometric aspects of the moduli space of Riemann Surfaces, and they proved that many known metrics on the moduli space are equivalent to one metric, which is now called the Liu-Sun-Yau metric. This theorem was conjectured by Yau much earlier.
Yau has devoted much of his time to the development of mathematics in China. He is the founder of Morningside Center of Mathematics in Beijing and in Zhejiang University. From August 2002, Yau and his colleagues organized conferences, workshops and summer schools in Zhejiang University. In the summer of 2004, Yau was chief organizer of the International Conference in Memory of Armand Borel, held in Hangzhou.
Yau was chief organizer of Strings 2006, an international physics conference on string theory, held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Among the lecturers was physicist Stephen Hawking, a long time friend of Yau.
Yau has recently been highly active in alleging widespread academic in , particularly concerning the mathematics field.
Honours and awards
Yau has received a number of awards. These include the Fields Medal in 1982 "for his contributions to partial differential equations, to the Calabi conjecture in algebraic geometry, to the of general relativity theory, and to real and complex Monge-Ampère equations", a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, the Crafoord Prize in 1994, and the National Medal of Science in 1997.
His name is according to its pronunciation in Standard Cantonese. He loves traditional Chinese literature, and he has written many Chinese poems.
Poincaré conjecture debates
In August 2006, a '''' article on the Poincaré conjecture, "", discussed Yau's relationship to that famous problem.
Yau claims this article is , and in September 2006 he established a public relations website, managed by the PR firm Spector and Associates, to dispute points in it and demand an apology. As of April 05, 2007, fifteen mathematics professors, including two quoted in the ''New Yorker'' article, have posted letters of support on Yau's website. The ''New Yorker'' reportedly stands by its article.
On October 17, 2006, a more sympathetic profile of Yau appeared, along with photographs from different stages of his life, in the ''''. After recounting Yau's humble beginnings and rise to academic stardom, it devotes about half its length to the affair. The article acknowledges that Yau's egotism and high-profile activities, including criticism of Chinese academia, have alienated some of his colleagues and that Yau's promotion of the Cao-Zhu paper "annoyed many mathematicians, who felt that Dr. Yau had slighted Dr. Perelman." It paints Yau as ultimately more concerned with the development of mathematics than with his reputation. In regards to the Perelman affair, the article focuses on Yau's position, which is that Perelman's proof was not understood by all, and he "had a duty to dig out the truth of the proof."