U.S. mathematician is first woman to win ‘math’s Nobel’

American professor Karen Uhlenbeck is the first woman to win the Abel Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious international mathematics awards.

Uhlenbeck, 76, is known for her work on a wide range of complex topics — including partial differential equations, the calculus of variations, gauge theory, and the integration of geometry and physics through new mathematical approaches.

A professor emerita at the University of Texas at Austin, Uhlenbeck is also a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study, where she co-founded its Women and Mathematics program in 1993, which encourages women to pursue math-related careers. She is also a visiting senior research scholar at Princeton University.

She has won the National Medal of Science, a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous other awards. Colleagues from around the globe applauded the announcement of her latest accolade, a prize often described as “math’s Nobel.”

Paul Goldbart, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, credited Uhlenbeck’s research with “revolutionary advances at the intersection of mathematics and physics,” adding: “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.”

In a 2018 interview at Princeton University, Uhlenbeck said “an addiction to intellectual excitement” fuels her drive to explore connections between different math disciplines.

The Abel Prize, established in 2003, is overseen by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Named for 19th-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, it is modeled on the Nobel Prize and carries a monetary award of 6 million Norwegian kroner (about $700,000).

The Norwegian academy said it is honoring Uhlenbeck “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.”

Uhlenbeck will formally receive the prize from Norway’s King Harald V at a May 21 ceremony in Oslo.