Finally,one of the top prizes in mathematics reached the hands of 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.”
Her studies include 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.
“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.”
“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,”said Karen.
There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, and for decades, the most prestigious awards in mathematics 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 advancements in mathematics.