The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has announced that Karen Uhlenbeck from the University of Texas at Austin has been awarded the 2019 Abel Prize—regarded as one of the highest accolades in mathematics. She is now the first woman to receive the illustrious award.
In a statement, Royal Society Fellow, Jim Al-Khalili, said that "the recognition of Uhlenbeck’s achievements should have been far greater, for her work has led to some of the most important advances in mathematics in the last 40 years."
The Abel Prize, named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel, addresses the gap left by the Nobel Prize for mathematics category. First awarded in 2003, the Abel Prize is presented by the King of Norway to a mathematician who has made extraordinary contributions to the field.
Dr. Uhlenbeck received the Abel Prize for her work in geometric analysis and gauge theory which reportedly changed the mathematical landscape. In a statement, Abel Committee Chair Hans Munthe-Kaas said, “Karen Uhlenbeck is a founder of modern geometric analysis. Her perspective has pervaded the field and led to some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics over the last 40 years."
A gauge theory is a type of physical theory where the properties of an an object (like a particle) doesn’t change under certain mathematical transformations. Gauge theories are used mainly for physical theories where we can’t observe something directly. Uhlenbeck’s contribution helps scientists apply mathematical gauge theories to the world we actually see.
Uhlenbeck’s contributions to gauge theory has also led to improvements in models used in particle physics, string theory, and general relativity. And she “developed tools and methods in global analysis, which are now in the toolbox of every geometer and analyst,” noted the Abel Prize, adding that her work also laid “the foundation for contemporary geometric models in mathematics and physics.”
At 76-years-old, Dr. Uhlenbeck is also a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. When asked about how she learned the news, she said, “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? When I got home, I called Norway back and they told me.”
Dr. Uhlenbeck will receive the Abel Prize in Mathematics in a special ceremony on May 21st in Oslo. It will be presented by His Majesty King Harald V and has an accompanying monetary reward amounting to NOK 6 million ($704,000 USD).
Previous winners include Andrew Wiles for his proof of Fermat’s last theorem, and Nobel-prizewinning game theorist John Nash, who was made famous by the movie A Beautiful Mind.