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article imageKaren Uhlenbeck: The first woman to win the Abel Prize for maths

By Tim Sandle     Mar 20, 2019 in Science
Karen Uhlenbeck is the first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize, which is generally regarded as the ‘Nobel prize’ for mathematics. Professor Uhlenbeck received the Abel Prize for her work on "minimal surfaces" such as soap bubbles.
Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin and she is a visiting associate at the Institute for Advanced Study and a senior research scholar at Princeton University.
She is also the co-founder of the Institute’s Women and Mathematics program (WAM), which aims to recruit and empower women to take the lead in mathematics research, and to encourage younger women to study mathematics at university.
Uhlenbeck’s research includes the identification and description of the complex shapes of soap films in abstract, high-dimensional curved spaces. This research has aided physicists in quantum field theory to help to understand the fundamental interactions between particles and forces.
Furthermore, by representing and manipulating soap bubbles mathematically, this enables researchers to assess and model the behaviour of physical phenomena, like electrical fields.
In addition, Uhlenbeck has been pivotal in pioneering the field of geometric analysis, which is today frequently used by many mathematicians. This research led her to be awarded the Abel Prize, which comes with 6 million Norwegian kroner ($700,000).
The Abel Prize is a Norwegian prize awarded annually by the King of Norway to one or more outstanding mathematicians. The prize is named after Niels Henrik Abel (an innovator in the field of elliptic functions) and the award is modeled after the Nobel Prizes.
The prize committee said it had awarded Uhlenbeck the prize for: “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’s research “inspired a generation of mathematicians,” according to François Labourie of the University of Côte d’Azur in France in conversation with Quantum Magazine. “She wanders around and finds new things that nobody has found before.”
Uhlenbeck herself is aware of the significance of the award and how it could be used to inspire others. She explains: “I am aware of the fact that I am a role model for young women in mathematics. It’s hard to be a role model, however, because what you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed … I may be a wonderful mathematician and famous because of it, but I’m also very human.”
More about Karen Uhlenbeck, abel prize, Nobel prize, Mathematics
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