The First Woman Just Won Mathematics’ Most Prestigious Award

Karen Uhlenbeck is being awarded the Abel prize for her research that revolutionized geometric analysis and mathematics.

Mar 31, 2019

This year, the Abel Prize – the highest award in mathematics – named Karen Uhlenbeck, a professor emerita at the University of Texas, as the awardee. She is the first woman ever to win this top international prize.

The prestigious international prize is modeled after the Nobel Prize and comes with a monetary amount of NOK 6 million (about $700,000). The Abel Prize is presented annually in Oslo, Norway by Norwegian King Harald V and administered by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

Uhlenbeck was chosen “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 an announcement released by the Academy.

“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,” said Jim Al-Khalili, Royal Society Fellow.

Her groundbreaking work has been described as some of the most important of 20th-century mathematics, and she made revolutionary advances in geometry, according to the University of Texas.

Uhlenbeck's work in gauge theory provided an analytic foundation for many of the concepts of modern physics. “Uhlenbeck’s research has led to revolutionary advances at the intersection of mathematics and physics,” said Paul Goldbart, the dean of the College of Natural Sciences and a professor of physics. “Her pioneering insights have applications across a range of fascinating subjects, from string theory, which may help explain the nature of reality, to the geometry of space-time.”

Another one of Uhlenbeck's more well-known contributions are her theories of predictive mathematics that were inspired by soap bubbles. "Her theories have revolutionized our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions,” said the chair of the Abel Committee Hans Munthe-Kaas.

Uhlenbeck came to the University in 1987 and retired in 2014. She has received other prestigious awards during her long illustrious career including a MacArthur Fellowship – sometimes referred to as a genius award – in 1983, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2000, and received the Steele Prize for a Seminal Contribution to Research from the American Mathematical Society in 2007.

Outreach and mentoring have been her passions, and she has been involved with programs that were designed to inspire and support young women in mathematics, a male-dominated field.

The Abel Prize was established in 2002 on the commemoration of the 200th birthday of Niels Henrik Abel (1802-1829), a Norwegian mathematician who made significant contributions to the field and has been only awarded to 19 laureates so far.

It is a remarkable achievement in the life of a very remarkable woman.

10 Notable Women of History in Science
5 Girl Scouts Projects Around the World That Empower Girls and Women
11 Perfect Accessories for Math and Science Geeks

Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.