Day 1: Laying a Wreath at the Abel Monument

The week’s events kicked off with Karen laying a wreath at the monument of Abel which sits in the grounds of the royal palace (the Slottsparken). Niels Heinrik Abel was a Norwegian mathematician born in 1802, largely unrecognized in his time, who died in poverty from TB at the age of 26. He established many amazing results, including the first complete proof of the binomial theorem and the general solution of the quintic problem, which had been intensively studied for centuries.

The Abel monument

Abel sent some of his manuscripts to the preeminent mathematicians of the day, Gauss and Cauchy, both of whom either lost or discarded them, thinking them the work of a crank. The rejections forced him to abort a visit to see these luminaries and essentially scuppered his career. Having lost the financial support of the Norwegian king, he descended into poverty and died shortly afterwards.

It was decades after his death before it was realized just how much he had achieved. Nowadays we speak of Abelian integrals, Abelian groups, Abelian varieties and, since 2001, the Abel Prize in mathematics.

The Abel monument was created in the first decade of the 20th century and is kind of strange. It features a naked Abel, very much the romantic embodiment, standing astride two prostrate figures. While I couldn’t find anyone who knew exactly who the two figures are, it is tempting to view them as Gauss and Cauchy. Given the arrogance of many of the preeminent figures of modern mathematics (Karen most definitely not included), there are a few others I wouldn’t mind seeing in similar positions.

Karen lays the wreath at the Abel monument.

Apparently, the statue was originally to be situated in front of the University of Oslo, but the professors (particularly the professors of medicine) objected to Abel’s nakedness. After six years of wrangling, the royal family allowed the monument to be placed on the palace grounds, where it still stands today.

In any event, after a few words by the President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and some music by members of the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces, Karen laid a wreath at the monument and the 2019 Abel Prize celebrations began.

This was followed by a dinner at the Norwegian Academy at their impressive mansion a kilometer up the road. The house, originally built by one of Norway’s richest men – a timber and dried fish merchant (what else) – has an amazing interior: full of oak-lined walls, ceiling murals and a spectacular wall-heater.

The evening was particularly nice for me, as I got to meet some of Karen’s other students from her days in Chicago, whom I had never met before. At the dinner, I sat beside Line Therese Nævestad, the organiser of the Abel Prize week and the official Director of Protocol at the Academy. She would be overseeing our interactions with King Harald the fifth, the Norwegian King who would be in attendance at the official ceremony and banquet the following day. Roll on Day 2!

Karen wins the Abel Prize

In April it was announced that the mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck was being awarded the Abel Prize in Mathematics

“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.”

The Abel Prize (pronounced “Ah-bell” rather than “Able”) is considered equivalent to the Nobel Prize, as there is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics. It is awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and comes with all of the same prestige as the Nobel, with a ceremony, state banquet etc etc.

Karen and I after my dissertation defense in 1997

I was delighted by the news, as I had studied for a doctorate in mathematics under Karen’s supervision in UT Austin from 1991 to 1997, and we have stayed in touch down through the years. In fact, just last December I submitted a mathematics paper to a special issue of a journal in her honour. The paper was

Dedicated to Karen Uhlenbeck on the occasion of her 75th birthday, in appreciation of her generous support during the years of cigar smuggling, bicycle riots and Zapatismo.

To make matters even more exciting, Karen has invited me to the Award Ceremony and related events in Oslo on May 20th to 23rd. That is this coming week and so over the next few days I will post some of my experiences in Oslo at the events. It is a great honour and should be fun!