Equal to Nobel

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

The Norwegian mathematical genius Niels Henrik Abel, after whom the Abel Prize is named.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Norwegian mathematical genius Niels Henrik Abel, after whom the Abel Prize is named.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Abel Prize is comparable to the Nobel Prize in terms of value and the eligibility criterion.

THE Abel Prize is an international prize awarded for outstanding lifetime achievements in mathematics. The prize is named in honour of the great Norwegian mathematical genius Niels Henrik Abel (1802-1829) who died at the young age of 26 (see Frontline, December 26, 2004, for a comparison with the Indian mathematical wizard Srinivasa Ramanujan).

It was established in 2001 as part of the events leading up to the celebrations of Abel's 200th birth anniversary, a little over 100 years after the idea was mooted in 1899 by the famous 19th century Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie (1842-1899) shortly before his death. The first Abel Prize was awarded in 2003.

The prize is administered by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the winning candidate is selected on the basis of the recommendation of an international committee chaired by a Norwegian. The committee consists of five outstanding mathematicians appointed by the Academy upon recommendations by the European Mathematical Society, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) and the Academy's group for pure and applied mathematics. There are three IMU nominees and one each nominated by the other two bodies in the committee.

The current value of the prize is NOK 6 million (approximately $980,000), which is derived from the annual returns on the NOK-200-million Abel Memorial Fund established by the Norwegian government in 2001. That is, while the fund belongs to the state, proceeds from it are used by the Academy.

Though the prize money will vary according to returns from the corpus fund, it will be similar to the amount of a Nobel Prize, the most coveted prize in the sciences, which, however, does not include mathematics (Frontline, September 8, 2006).

The Fields Medal of the IMU, which was given for the first time in 1936, is generally regarded as the `Mathematician's Nobel' and is extremely prestigious. But only mathematicians below the age of 40 are eligible for the Fields Medal and it does not have any monetary prize except for a symbolic amount. The Abel Prize, on the other hand, has no such restriction and is comparable to the Nobel Prize both in terms of value and the eligibility criterion.

The Abel Prize is usually awarded in May every year by the King of Norway in a ceremony at the University of Oslo's Aula, a tradition-rich auditorium featuring murals by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The following day the prize-winner gives the Abel Lecture at the University of Oslo, and later at one of the other university cities in Norway.

In 1902, as the celebration of Abel's first centenary approached, three main tasks had been specified: to arrange a broad cultural commemoration of Abel, to raise a worthy monument in his memory and to establish an international Abel Prize. The first two tasks were completed though Gustav Vigeland's Abel Monument on Abelhaugen was unveiled only six years later. Though Lie had been the first enthusiastic proponent of establishing an Abel Prize, the idea died with him. Lie's suggestion for an Abel award every five years for outstanding work in pure mathematics had been inspired by the knowledge that Alfred Nobel's plans for annual prizes, made known in 1897 itself, would not include mathematics. Although the support to Lie's suggestion from leading mathematics centres in Europe was enormous, the contacts and promises were apparently tied too much to Lie personally and hence it could not be realised easily.

During Abel's first centenary celebration, King Oscar II of Norway got interested in the idea and revived the proposal in close association with the Science Society of Christiania, now the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and Norwegian mathematicians Carl Stormer and Ludvig Sylow. However, with the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905, the plans were once again dropped. It was revived only in August 2000 when an industrialist, Tormod Hermansen, the then CEO of Telnor, met Arild Stubhaug, who had written Abel's biography just the year before.

Hermansen briefed the Norwegian Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs about the idea and Stubhaug made the proposal to the Department of Mathematics, University of Oslo.

The university took up the matter seriously and set up a working group comprising Professors Jens Erik Fenstad, Arnfinn Laudal, Ragni Piene, Yngvar Reichelt and Nils Voje Johansen, and the author Stubhaug. The working group submitted the proposal to the Norwegian Prime Minister in May 2001. "Norway is a small country. There are close connections and people who matter generally know each other. So we could lobby with the government and after some time we were very surprised to learn that the government had agreed to fund this prize," says Piene.

On August 23, 2001, during a speech at the University of Oslo, Prime Minister Jens Stiltenberg announced his government's decision to establish the Abel Fund.

Though the prize has gained stature and prestige, no one thinks that it will replace the Fields Medal. "This is a different kind of prize and it is not meant to compete with the Fields Medal," points out Piene. "In fact, the IMU helped us in establishing the prize and its backing was useful in our lobbying within Norway, which was very important," she adds.

Besides providing the financial basis for the Abel Prize, the Abel Fund is also meant to raise the status of mathematics in society and to encourage children and young people to become interested in mathematics.

This is done by supporting two major Norwegian competitions in mathematics, the Niels Henrik Abel Contest and KappAbel, and the annual Abel symposia of the Norwegian Mathematical Society. In addition, the Abel Fund supports the Ramanujan Prize for young mathematicians under the age of 45 from developing countries instituted by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste.

The first Ramanujan Prize was given in 2005 and last year's prize, in fact, went to an Indian mathematician, Sujatha Ramdorai of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

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