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Abel Prize

The ninth annual Abel Prize was awarded to John Milnor two days ago. As I explained in a post two years ago and again a year ago, the prize was established in 2001 by the Norwegian government to be the counterpart in mathematics to the Nobel Prizes in other disciplines. It has been awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters each year since 2003 to one or two outstanding mathematicians and honors the great, early-nineteenth-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel.

This year’s recipient is John Milnor. As explained at the Abel Prize website, his

profound ideas and fundamental discoveries have largely shaped the mathematical landscape of the second half of the 20th century. All of Milnor’s work display features of great research: profound insights, vivid imagination, striking surprises and supreme beauty. He receives the 2011 Abel Prize “for pioneering discoveries in topology, geometry and algebra,” to quote the Abel committee.

In the course of 60 years, John Milnor has made a deep mark on modern mathematics. Numerous mathematical concepts, results and conjectures are named after him. In the literature we find Milnor exotic spheres, Milnor fibration, Milnor number and many more. Yet the significance of Milnor’s work goes far beyond his own spectacular results. He has also written tremendously influential books, which are widely considered to be models of fine mathematical writing.

Milnor is indeed a fine mathematical writer. I own his beautiful Symmetric Bilinear Forms, a classic, and his tiny monograph Topology from the Differentiable Viewpoint.

Milnor spent much of his career in Princeton, as a student and faculty member at the university and later as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, before moving late in his career to Stony Brook. Between the university and the Institute, he was briefly at MIT. I overlapped with him twice, at MIT and then during my sabbatical year as a member of the Institute, but foolishly, I never talked with him.

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