Oxford scholar wins Abel Prize

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UPDATED: He’s considered one of the world’s greatest contemporary mathematicians, and this week Sir Andrew J Wiles is in Oslo to receive this year’s Abel Prize. Named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, it’s been described as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in mathematics, and Wiles seemed delighted to receive it.

Sir Andrew J Wiles received his Abel Prize from Crown Prince Haakon in Oslo on Tuesday. PHOTO: Abel Prize/Audun Braastad

Sir Andrew J Wiles received his Abel Prize from Crown Prince Haakon in Oslo on Tuesday. PHOTO: Abel Prize/Audun Braastad

“This is special,” Wiles told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday, because he views it as the biggest prize of them all. “It’s a great honour to receive it, and it’s a fine way (for Norway) and the world to honour Niels Henrik Abel. He was a great and important mathematician.”

Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon stepped in for his father, King Harald V, to present the prize since the monarch was busy hosting a state visit for the president of Poland. The crown prince studied at the University of California at Berkeley, so he’s no stranger to notable academics as he congratulated Wiles on the prize, which carries a cash prize of NOK 6 million (USD 722,000) funded by the Norwegian government.

Wiles said he still hasn’t decided what to do with the prize money, “but I have many holes to put the money into,” he said with a smile.

Wiles received the prize for what the Abel Committee called “his stunning proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by way of the modularity conjecture for semistable elliptic curves, opening up a new era in number theory.” Wiles is credited with cracking what had been the most famous and long-running unsolved problem in mathematical history. The head of the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford, where Wiles is a professor, has claimed that “no individual exemplifies the relentless pursuit of mathematical understanding in the service of mankind” better than Sir Andrew Wiles.

“His dedication to solving problems that have defied mankind for centuries, and the stunning beauty of his solutions to these problems, provide a beacon to inspire and sustain everyone who wrestles with the fundamental challenges of mathematics and the world around,” said Martin Bridson of Oxford. “His work will inspire mathematicians and scientists for centuries to come.”

Wiles himself said he hoped the prize and the exciting story of his quest for the Fermat solution, which actually began when he was a child, can inspire other children to get and stay interested in math. “I think the problem is that children much too often encounter mathematics through people who are afraid of it,” Wiles told Aftenposten. “If they are instead introduced to mathematics by teachers and parents who like it, the motivation to continue with it would be something quite different.” He said he has loved math and math problems for as long as he can remember.

Wiles was born in Cambridge in 1953, earned his bachelor’s degree at Oxford’s Merton College and a PhD at Clare College, Cambridge. He has been a professor at Princeton University in the US, a fellow at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques near Paris and, most recently, a Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford. He has received numerous other awards over the years and was knighted in 2000.

He received the Abel Prize in a ceremony at the University of Oslo’s Aula on Tuesday, followed by a reception at Det Norske Teatret. Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen hosted the Abel Banquet for Wiles at Oslo’s historic Akershus Fortress and Castle on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, Wiles was to deliver his prize lecture at the University of Oslo.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund