The Sum of All Parts

This Arithmetic Aficionada is the First Female to Win the Nobel Prize in Math

Here at GoGirl, we lesser-known love “firsts,” especially when they precede “female.” And, this inspiring story really adds up.

    It was much like any other random, relaxing Sunday morning.  Renowned mathematician and an emeritus professor at the University of Texas in Austin, Karen Uhlenbeck, emerged from Mass at her local church to find a text message from Alice Chang in Norway awaiting her response: “Please call.”

    Unbeknownst to her at the time, Dr. Uhlenbeck was set to become the first female to receive the sought-after Abel Prize in Mathematics. One of the world’s most coveted and prestigious awards, the Abel Prize cites, “…the fundamental impact of [her] work in analysis, geometry, and mathematical physics,” according to The New York Times. The Nobel Prize for mathematics, the Abel Prize, is personally awarded by the king of Norway to honor and distinguish outstanding mathematicians who’ve illustrated exemplary work and who’ve greatly influenced and contributed to their field. The mathematics honor has been given annually since 2003, but up until now, only men have been the fortuitous recipients. A substantial cash sum of around $700K accompanies the esteemed prize.

    Dr. Uhlenbeck, 77, is acclaimed for her groundbreaking work in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory, and integrable systems. She continues to pioneer a new, lesser-known field called geometric analysis and has famously contributed to theories of predictive mathematics, which were surprisingly inspired by digital “soap bubbles.” The winning factor in determining Uhlenbeck as the newest Abel Prize beneficiary was “that she did things nobody thought about doing, and after she did, she laid the foundations with a brand of mathematics,” said Sun-Yung Alice Chang, a mathematician at Princeton University who sat on the Abel Prize committee.

Novels to Numbers - The Making of a Math Maven horrible profession.”

    Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Uhlenbeck grew up as an enthusiastic bookworm, incessantly diving into the infinitely imaginative world of fiction, as well as the endlessly informative one of nonfiction. It wasn’t until she enrolled in the freshman honors math course at the University of Michigan where the world of numbers, statistics, and shapes stole her heart forever. “The structure, elegance, and beauty of mathematics struck me immediately and I lost my heart to it,” she wrote in the book Mathematics: An Outer View of the Inner World. A self-professed recluse, the award-winning mathematician was also transfixed by the field because it was “something you can work on in solitude if you wish,” admittedly adding, “I regarded anything to do with people as being sort of a horrible profession.”

    Although her seminal work has awarded her the exalted Abel, it wasn’t the first time this devotee of digits had broken through the proverbial glass ceiling. In 1990, she became only the second woman in history to present a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematics. The first female was Emmy Noether in 1932. Talk about a much-needed dry spell ending! While initially drawn to mathematics for its lone-wolf appeal, Uhlenbeck would eventually embrace her growing role as leader and model for aspiring female mathematicians and co-founded a mentoring program for women in mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Uhlenbeck would then go on to hold the Sid W. Richardson Foundation chair at the University of Texas in Austin, where she currently teaches.

    Surprised by her recent, history-making achievement, Uhlenbeck has yet to decide what she plans on doing with her unceremonious cash windfall. Now, that’s something to count on!


Calling all mathematician mavens!  You, too, can be number one!