American Karen Uhlenbeck has won the 2019 Abel prize, often referred to as “math’s Nobel” prize. The accomplished mathematician is the first woman in history to earn the distinction from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
Uhlenbeck received the award for “her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics,” according to Abel’s website. Her work, which Abel committee chair Hans Munthe-Kaas refered to as having, “dramatically changed the mathematical landscape,” includes research involving something familiar to many — bubbles. She analyzed “minimal surfaces,” such as those formed by soap bubbles, according to Munthe-Kaas.
The mathematician also created tools and methods in global analysis, which the award’s site states, are now in the “toolbox of every geometer and analyst.” Her efforts provided the foundation for today’s geometric models in the fields of math and physics. She is also revered for her work on “gauge theory,” the mathematical gauge of theoretical physics, which gave an analytical foundation for many concepts researched in modern physics.
Uhlenbeck was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin for more than three decades while conducting her revolutionary research, according to a university press release. “She transformed the fabric of the department with her broad view of mathematics and beyond,” said Thomas Chen, chair of the Department of Mathematics at UT-Austin, in the press release. Now, she is currently a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and a visiting senior research scholar in mathematics at Princeton University.
In addition to her pioneering accomplishments in mathematics, the educator is a strong advocate for gender equality in mathematics and science. She is one of the founders of the Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI) at IAS, which has a goal of providing training to young researchers and encouraging an understanding of the difficulties and interests in math. She also co-founded the Institute’s Women and Mathematics program (WAM), which aims to motivate women to lead in mathematics research.
Norway’s King Harald V will bestow the award to Uhlenbeck at a ceremony in Oslo on May 21st. She is the first of 19 winners, since the prize’s creation in 2002, to be a woman. The honor also comes with a monetary prize of 6 million Norwegian kroner, or about $700,000.