Trailblazer

1st woman winner of $700k ‘Nobel of mathematics’ credits surprising role model

American food critic, chef, and television host Julia Child (L), showed Karen Uhlenbeck, first woman winner of the Abel Prize for mathematics, that a woman can forge a career on her own terms. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study)

For the first time, one of mathematics’ top prizes has been awarded to a woman.

University of Texas professor emeritus Karen Uhlenbeck was announced on Tuesday as the recipient of the annual Abel Prize, which also comes with an award of $700,000.

There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, and for decades the most prestigious awards in math were the Fields Medals, awarded every four years to the most accomplished mathematicians who are 40 or younger. Only one woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, has ever received a Fields Medal.

After winning the Abel, Uhlenbeck said that she was proud to serve as a role model for other women in the field of mathematics. Growing up, she acknowledged, there had been few publicly recognized women in academics for her to look up to. “Looking back now I realize that I was very lucky,” said Uhlenbeck. “I was in the forefront of a generation of women who actually could get real jobs in academia … I certainly very much felt I was a woman throughout my career. That is, I never felt like one of the guys.”

With fewer women in public life to look up to in her youth, Uhlenbeck nominates a surprising source of inspiration — a popular TV chef and author.

“Like many people in my generation,” she told the New York Times, “my role model was Julia Child.”

Uhlenbeck, 76, helped found the field of geometric analysis with her work describing the fundamental interactions between particles and forces in quantum field theory. She is also credited with discovering what shapes a soap film can take in higher-dimensional curved spaces. She began publishing her major works in her late 30s before winning broad recognition with a MacArthur fellowship at age 41, in 1983. In 1990, she became the second woman — and the first in nearly six decades — to address the International Congress of Mathematicians. At each congress, there are 10 to 20 plenary talks, but for decades, all of the speakers had been men.

“She did things nobody thought about doing,” said Princeton University mathematician Sun-Yung Alice Chang, one of the five members of the prize committee. “After she did, she laid the foundations of a branch of mathematics.”

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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