Three Courant Institute Abel Prize Winners To Speak At NYU Conference

What are the odds that of the twelve mathematicians who have been awarded the highly prestigious Abel Prize, three of them (25%) would hail from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences? The probability is small, perhaps, but the accomplishment is enormous.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, along with King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway, have presented the Abel Prize to the Courant Institute’s Peter Lax in 2005, Raghu Varadhan in 2007 and Mikhael Gromov in 2009.

“‘It really is phenomenal,’” said Donald E. McClure, executive director of the American Mathematical Society, in a 2009 New York Times article. “‘It has the same distinction as a Nobel Prize, and there’s no other institution in the United States or in the world that has had such a concentration of these awards.’”

As part of “Abel in New York,” the Courant Institute’s one-day conference on February 21, 2013, all three Courant Abel laureates will give lectures. Other speakers will include members of the current Abel committee.

Every year, the name of the Abel Laureate is announced in March. In May, the laureate travels to Olso, Norway for two days of celebrations, including a wreath laying ceremony honoring the exceptional Swedish mathematician Niels Henrik Abel in whose memory the Abel Prize was established, a dinner, an award ceremony, lectures at the University of Oslo, and finally, a banquet at Akershus Castle given by the Norwegian government.

The Abel Prize was first awarded in 2003, making Peter Lax, professor emeritus of the Courant Institute, the third Abel Laureate, due to his groundbreaking contributions to the theory and application of partial differential equations and to the computation of their solutions. Asked to describe the award ceremony in Oslo, Lax recalled, “The King was cruising on the Mediterranean but the Queen presided, and the Crown Prince, Haakon, was a very nice guy. He told me he had been a student for some years at Berkeley. He was very pleased with that. It was quite surreal, and a great honor. I was not expecting it,” he said.

Raghu Varadhan, honored for his work in probability theory, said of the experience, “It was really wonderful. People often compare the Abel to the Nobel Prize but with the Nobel Prize, you’re one of seven or eight people in different disciplines, whereas the Abel Prize is just for mathematics, so the entire celebration is just for you. That made it much more impressive for me.”

“I didn’t see it coming,” recalled Mikhael Gromov, awarded the Abel Prize for his revolutionary contributions to geometry. “It was more relaxed and less formal than I was afraid it would be. Seeing the Akershus Castle was really exciting, plus meeting some really interesting people. One change it has brought is more interviews. I knew Grigori Perelman personally so I’ve had many interviews concerning him since winning the Abel.”

Written by M.L. Ball