Karen Uhlenbeck becomes first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize in Mathematics

Her research 'inspired a generation of mathematicians' and created a new field of mathematics.

For the first time, a prestigious mathematics prize has been awarded to a woman.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced that Dr Karen Uhlenbeck, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas will be awarded the Abel Prize, which is the closest to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics.

For decades, the most prestigious awards in mathematics were the Fields Medals, awarded in small batches once in four years to accomplished, young mathematicians under 40. The only woman to receive a Fields Medal till date is Maryam Mirzakhani, in 2014.

Now, the Abel prize has recognised Uhlenbeck for “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics,” according to the award site.

Karen Uhlenbeck becomes first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize in Mathematics

Karen Uhlenbeck becomes first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize in Mathematics. Image courtesy: IAS

Uhlenbeck founded an entirely new field of mathematics – geometric analysis, and developed many of the techniques used by mathematicians currently working in the field. Her work has “led to some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics in the last 40 years,” the award cites.

Her research has “inspired a generation of mathematicians,” Frances Labourie, from the University of Côte d’Azur, France, told Quanta. “She wanders around and finds new things that nobody has found before.”

Uhlenbeck formulated a way to describe the curved shapes soap bubbles make in a three-dimensional space. This is one example of ‘optimization problems’ in mathematics – tricky problems to figure out that have zero, one or many solutions.

Where's the poetry and music of the sciences? Image courtesy: Catholic University of Brazil

Where's the poetry and music of the sciences? Image courtesy: Catholic University of Brazil

While this is simple to solve for a flat plane or even a sphere like the Earth, the solutions for soap bubbles were quite problematic till Uhlenbeck’s contributions came along. She has also contributed to Albert Einstein’s quantum field theory, describing how particles and forces interact with each other on a fundamental level.

While not a mathematics prodigy or even very taken by the subject until her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, she was a voracious reader. Hers was among 92 portraits of modern math wizzes featured in the book Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World, where she described when she knew it was love: “The structure, elegance and beauty of mathematics struck me immediately, and I lost my heart to it."

Dr Uhlenbeck recognized that she was a role model for women who followed her in mathematics, she told the New York Times.

“Looking back now I realize that I was very lucky,” she said. “I was in the forefront of a generation of women who actually could get real jobs in academia.”

But she wasn’t short of role models entirely – she just looked elsewhere to find them.

“Like many people in my generation,” Dr Uhlenbeck told NYT, “my role model was Julia Child.”

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