Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck Is The First Woman To Win The ‘Nobel Prize Of Math’

The King of Norway will present the mathematician with the Abel Prize.

: King Harald V of Norway makes a speech at a dinner
Chris Jackson / Getty Images

The King of Norway will present the mathematician with the Abel Prize.

This week, the Abel Prize for mathematics was awarded for the first time ever to a woman, Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck, a mathematician and emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Cut says that the Abel Prize is modeled after the Nobel Prize, and is also presented by the King of Norway, King Harald. It recognizes excellence in mathematicians who have “greatly influenced the field.” The New York Times credits Dr. Uhlenbeck, stating that “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics” were considerations for awarding her the prize.

The Abel Prize includes a medal and a cash prize of Norwegian kroner with a value of $700,000. In the history of the prize, all winners have been men. But Dr. Uhlenbeck has always been a trailblazer in math, pioneering the field of geometric analysis, with one of her most well-known contributions being her theories of predictive mathematics, inspired by soap bubbles.

Sun-Yung Alice Chang, a mathematician at Princeton University who served on the Abel Prize committee, says that Uhlenbeck has always been a leader in the field of mathematics.

“She did things nobody thought about doing, and after she did, she laid the foundations of a branch of mathematics.”

Dr. Uhlenbeck explains that she learned about the prize last week via a text message, but still hasn’t decided what to do with the money.

“When I came out of church, I noticed that I had a text message from Alice Chang that said, Would I please accept a call from Norway? When I got home, I called Norway back and they told me.”

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In the 16-year history of the Abel Prize, 20 prizes have been awarded, with six of those being joint awards, says Smithsonian. All previous recipients were men.

Jonas Cho Walsgard notes that Dr. Uhlenbeck has not just aided the world of math, but also the world of theoretical physics, helping with “better model concepts from particle physics string theory and general relativity.” Uhlenbeck wasn’t always obsessed with math, preferring to delve into the world of science, reading hefty scientific journals from an early age. But she started her formal education at the University of Michigan with honors math, and then went to Brandeis University for her graduate work, earning a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Dr. Uhlenbeck explains that she got a lot of resistance from the other students and professors because she was one of a few women in the department.

“We were told that we couldn’t do math because we were women. [But] I liked doing what I wasn’t supposed to do. It was a sort of legitimate rebellion.”