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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Throwback Fact: The Abel Prize

Many of our blog viewers are coming from one of our social media sites, so you’ll already know that we gave a shout out to the 2015 winners of the Abel Prize- John Nash and Louis Nirenberg. Their work in geometric analysis earned them the prize, regarded by many as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. Nash is particularly interesting to those not versed in math research because his was already a household name: he was the subject of the 2001 Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind (both of their pictures are above). 

For this Throwback Fact, we’d like to take a look at the origins of the Abel Prize and remember the first few winners. The prize is named for Niels Henrik Abel (1802 – 1829), who we featured as part of our MathMadness bracket. He was a Norwegian mathematician who contributed much to the fields of group theory (of which he was an inventor) and number theory, but his recognition was almost all awarded after his death. He could not gain a professorial position during his lifetime, and died in poverty of tuberculosis at age 26. After his death, however, his mathematical abilities were discovered and the impact of his work was quickly understood. Charles Hermite, a French mathematician, was quoted saying “Abel has left mathematicians enough to keep them busy for five hundred years.”

Sophus Lie
Then, in the late 1890s, another mathematician by the name of Sophus Lie recognized the need for an international mathematics prize (as the Nobel prize was first planned in 1897 and did not include a prize for mathematics). He intended to name it the Abel Prize, and to award it every five years for “outstanding work in pure mathematics.” Lie garnered the support of centers of math from all over Europe, but the momentum died when Lie did in 1899.

The logo of the Abel Prize

On the centennial of Abel’s birth in 1902, King Oscar II of Norway became interested in a prize in the great mathematician’s honor. This time, political strife at the time caused a lack of finances to fund the prize.

Finally, in 2002 at the bicentennial of Abel’s birth, plans made a century earlier were put into action to make the International Abel Prize a reality. In 2003, the first annual Abel prize was awarded to Jean-Pierre Serre “for playing a key role in shaping the modern form of many parts of mathematics, including topology, algebraic geometry and number theory.”

For more information about the Abel Prize, please view the website here.

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