A math celebration with a decidedly Yale flavor
For two years running, the road to one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics has gone through New Haven.
In both 2020 and 2021, an Abel Prize — considered by many the Nobel Prize of math — was awarded to a Yale-affiliated mathematician: first Gregory A. Margulis, the Erastus L. DeForest Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, and then former Yale faculty member László Lovász.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, which gives out the Abel Prizes, had been unable to officially celebrate the winners.
Until now. On May 25, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters hosted an online award ceremony honoring 2020 winners Margulis and Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor emeritus Hillel Furstenberg, and 2021 winners Lovász and Institute for Advanced Study professor Avi Wigderson.
The ceremony included remarks from Hans Petter Graver, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and a professor at the University of Oslo, and Abel Committee Chair Hans Munthe-Kaas; acceptance speeches by the four recipients; and musical performances.
Torleiv Opland, deputy chief of mission at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., presented Margulis with his award at the Norwegian ambassador’s residence.
Created in 2002, the Abel Prize honors outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. The prize amount is 7.5 million Norwegian kroner (approximately $904,000).
Margolis, considered one of the most innovative and influential mathematicians of the past half-century, has also won the prestigious Field Medal and the Wolf Prize.
He has received acclaim for proving the Selberg-Piatetskii-Shapiro Conjecture, which demonstrated that lattices — a type of abstract mathematical structure, akin to the symmetry patterns of periodic tilings — in higher-rank Lie groups are arithmetic in nature.
“I always try to work on difficult problems, sometimes unsuccessfully and sometimes successfully,” Margolis said. “Success was achieved, in some cases, by a more or less straightforward approach, and in other cases by discovering new connections between various fields and mathematics.”
Margulis also noted that when the Norwegian Academy called to inform him of the Abel Prize, his wife thought the call was a scammer and hung up — twice.
“The third time, it worked,” he said.
Trine Skymoen, Norway’s ambassador to Hungary, presented Lovász with his award at the ambassador’s residence in Budapest.
Lovász is known for his work in combinatorics, an area of mathematics that touches upon a wide array of other topics, from algebra and topology to the analysis of algorithms.
During the ceremony, he told a story about the time, as a university student in Hungary, he wrote a computer program that crashed the university’s one computer.
“Several of us young mathematicians realized that the theory of computing was a deep and exciting new field of mathematics,” Lovász said. “It is very intimately related to graph theory and discrete mathematics. In the last couple of decades, graph theory as the mathematical basis of metric science experienced another jump in importance. We now realize that most of the structures and systems we want to understand have an underlying network, or graph. From computers to the internet, from ecological communities to the brain, from social networks to epidemics, graph theory is becoming the mathematical background for this new paradigm.
“It has been a great privilege to live through this period and to have been able to make a modest contribution.”
Jeffrey Brock, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, dean of science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Zhao and Ji Professor of Mathematics, said that having past and present faculty members honored with an Abel Prize creates a unique moment for Yale.
“Professor Margulis, in particular — despite his down-to-earth persona — has been a source of almost celestial inspiration to generations of mathematicians at Yale and beyond,” Brock said. “His work in the area of dynamical systems has brought disciplines together, linking results in geometry, number theory, and analysis in a beautiful, impactful, and inextricable way.
“Although he recently retired from his regular faculty position, he shows no signs of slowing down in his research, and we are grateful for his continued presence in the department.”
The Abel Prize award ceremony can be viewed on the Abel Prize’s YouTube channel.