Karen Uhlenbeck is First Woman to Win Prestigious Abel Prize in Mathematics

Karen Uhlenbeck published many of her major papers in her late 30s and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1983.
Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study

For the first time, one of the top prizes in mathematics has been given to a woman.

On Tuesday, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced it has awarded this year’s Abel Prize — an award modeled on the Nobel Prizes — to Karen Uhlenbeck, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The award cites “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”

One of Dr. Uhlenbeck’s advances in essence described the complex shapes of soap films not in a bubble bath but in abstract, high-dimensional curved spaces. In later work, she helped put a rigorous mathematical underpinning to techniques widely used by physicists in quantum field theory to describe fundamental interactions between particles and forces.

In the process, she helped pioneer a field known as geometric analysis, and she developed techniques now commonly used by many mathematicians.

“She did things nobody thought about doing,” said Sun-Yung Alice Chang, a mathematician at Princeton University who served on the five-member prize committee, “and after she did, she laid the foundations of a branch of mathematics.”

Dr. Uhlenbeck, who lives in Princeton, N.J., learned that she won the prize on Sunday morning.

“When I came out of church, I noticed that I had a text message from Alice Chang that said, Would I please accept a call from Norway?” Dr. Uhlenbeck said. “When I got home, I called Norway back and they told me.”

Dr. Uhlenbeck, 76, a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said she had not decided what to do with the $700,000 that accompanies the honor.

There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, and for decades, the most prestigious awards in math were the Fields Medals, awarded in small batches every four years to the most accomplished mathematicians who are 40 or younger. Maryam Mirzakhani, in 2014, is the only woman to receive a Fields Medal.

The Abel, named after the Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel, is set up more like the Nobels. Since 2003, it has been given out annually to highlight important advances in mathematics. The previous 19 laureates — in three years, the prize was split between two mathematicians — were men, including Andrew J. Wiles, who proved Fermat’s last theorem and is now at the University of Oxford; Peter D. Lax of New York University; and John F. Nash Jr., whose life was portrayed in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Kenneth Chang