Pythagoras, Euclid, Guillaume L’Hôpital, Johann Bernoulli, John Nash. History is littered with the names of famous mathematicians, nearly all of them men, after whom formulas and entire fields of math have been named.
But Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician, has proven that when it comes to math, women are absolute equals — and she didn’t even need theorems to do it.
Uhlenbeck’s decades of work have touched on several disciplines, including geometry, quantum theory, and physics, but is being recognized, in particular, 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,” according to the prize’s website.
Congratulations to my dear friend and long-term @the_IAS visitor Karen Uhlenbeck, 2019 #AbelPrize laureate. Fantastic mathematician, role model, and honorary physicist—her work on moduli spaces is crucial for understanding modern gauge theories. pic.twitter.com/gAwyTIsWZt— Robbert Dijkgraaf (@RHDijkgraaf) March 19, 2019
The Abel Prize, first awarded in 2003, is bestowed by the King of Norway and comes with a 6 million Norwegian kroner (approximately $700,000) cash prize.
Uhlenbeck is a celebrated mathematician, having previously won the National Medal of Science in 2000 and receiving a MacArthur Fellowship — also known as a “genius grant” — in 1983.
“Uhlenbeck’s research has led to revolutionary advances at the intersection of mathematics and physics,” Paul Goldbart, dean of the University of Texas’ College of Natural Sciences, said in a statement.
“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,” he added.
Uhlenbeck told the New York Times that she has been acutely aware of the unique opportunity she had to be a role model for the next generation of women in academia. Growing up, she said her own role model was famed chef and television personality, Julia Child.
“I certainly very much felt I was a woman throughout my career. That is, I never felt like one of the guys,” she said.
Still she considers herself lucky, telling the Times, “I was in the forefront of a generation of women who actually could get real jobs in academia.”
Karen Uhlenbeck becomes the first woman to win the Abel Prize, math’s lifetime achievement award. Love the kicker quote in @EricaKlarreich’s great profile: In math, “I have been saved from boredom, dourness, and self-absorption. One cannot ask for more.” https://t.co/heoYr2xSuZ— Natalie Wolchover (@nattyover) March 19, 2019
But almost as important as her contributions to her field, are Uhlenbeck’s contributions to the next generation of women. Trailblazers like Uhlenbeck help show women and girls around the world that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which have traditionally been male-dominated, do not need to remain so.
Her historic win is not only helping to advance the field of mathematics, but shattering gender stereotypes.