For the first time ever, the Abel Prize – one of the world’s top prizes for mathematics – has been won by a woman. Karen Uhlenbeck won this year’s prize for her work, which has affected both math and science.
The Abel Prize was started in 2003 and is meant to be like a Nobel Prize for math. It is a yearly prize given to people who have made great additions to the study of mathematics. Until this year, the award has always gone to men.
As a child, Dr. Uhlenbeck dreamed of becoming a scientist. Though she became a mathematician instead, her work has been very useful in science.
Over the years, Dr. Uhlenbeck, now 76, has worked in many different areas of mathematics. Much of her work is quite complicated and difficult to understand. She says, “I find that I am bored with anything I understand.”
Some of her most famous work involves describing complicated arrangements of soap bubbles using math. The results of that work and the methods she created have turned out to be quite important.
Sun-Yung Alice Chang, one of the people who helped choose Dr. Uhlenbeck for the Abel Prize said, “She did things nobody thought about doing.” And by doing that, Dr. Chang said, she helped create a new area of mathematics.
Over her career, Dr. Uhlenbeck has won many other prizes. These include winning a MacArthur Fellowship (sometimes called a “Genius Grant”) in 1983 and the National Medal of Science award in 2000.
But Dr. Uhlenbeck did not always have an easy time. She began her career in mathematics at a time when it was unusual for women to study higher-level mathematics. “We were told that we couldn’t do math because we were women,” she said. But she didn’t let that stop her. “I liked doing what I wasn’t supposed to do.”
For most of her career, Doctor Uhlenbeck worked at the University of Texas at Austin. She retired from the university in 2014, but she has kept up her contacts there and at other schools, such as the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey.
She has put a lot of energy into helping young women get into mathematics. She helped create the Women and Mathematics Program at the IAS, hoping to encourage more women to go into math and to stick with it. The program has helped almost 1,500 young women since it was started in 1993.
Dr. Uhlenbeck will be given the Abel Prize by the King of Norway in Oslo on May 21. The award comes with prize money worth about $700,000.