US professor wins the Abel Prize

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She admits to being something of a loner who wanted a job where she wouldn’t have to work with other people. On Tuesday, though, Professor Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck was awarded the world’s leading prize in mathematics in front of lots of people, including Norway’s monarch.

Some say Professor Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck should have been recognized long ago, since her work has led to some of the most important advances in mathematics in the last 40 years. PHOTO: The Abel Prize

“I think about it (mathematical problems) all the time,” the 76-year-old from the University of Texas at Austin told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten before receiving this year’s Abel Prize in Oslo. She said she likes best to sit with a notepad and write things down, then set it aside for awhile, then come back to it. “It helps to take notes, but I don’t take care of them,” she said. “I start all over again all the time, because I think I can perhaps find a new way to solve them.”

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters awarded the Abel Prize for 2019 to Uhlenbeck “for her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”

She doesn’t expect most folks to understand what she’s been doing for the past 50 years, but her research is used in the development of computers and artificial intelligence. She’s a bit worried about the latter, but the applications of her work don’t drive her. She’s still most engaged by the sheer mathematics involved.

‘Her influence has been great’
Nils A Baas, a math professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, noted in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend that Uhlenbeck is the first woman to win the Abel Prize, and Norwegian media has made a point of that as well. Baas added, though, that Uhlenbeck didn’t win the prize because she’s a woman, “but because she has, in an impressive manner, contributed to mathematics both in bredth and in depth.” He called her work “central in the modern development of geometry, analysis and mathematical physics, where her influence has been great.”

Uhlenbeck has also won the US’ National Medal of Science. She worked at the University of Texas in Austin from 1988 until retiring just five years ago. Uhlenbeck is now “Visiting Senior Research Scholar” at Princeton University and a Visiting Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

She did break barriers in the male-dominated math world as a leading figure for a generation of female mathematicians who eventually won posts at peading universities. She’s co-founder of the Park City Mathematics Institute at IAS and its Women and Mathematics program, created in 1993 to recruit and empower women to lead in mathematcs research at all stages of their mathematics careers. She’s said she never felt like “one of the boys” and her childhood idol was the US Public Broadcasting System’s “French Chef,” Julia Child: “She was tall and outgoing. It wasn’t her cooking but her personality, that she was smart, funny and not perfect.”

NOK 6 million cash award
Her new prize, named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, carries a cash award of NOK 6 million (USD 689,000) from the Norwegian government and has been awarded annually since 2003. It was created not only to honour Abel on the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2002, but also to honour and encourage mathematicians and contribute towards raising the status of mathematics in society.

In addition to the prize ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the University Aula decorated with murals by Edvard Munch, the winner also has an audience at the Royal Palace in Oslo with King Harald V, who regularly attends the Abel Prize ceremony and formally awards the prize. That was to be followed by a reception at Norway’s National Theater and a banquet at Oslo’s historic Akershus Fortress and Castle. Uhlenbeck will also hold her Abel Prize lecture at the University of Oslo on Wednesday. Berglund