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2012 Abel Prize

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters this morning announced the recipient of its 2012 Abel Prize, the tenth one awarded. With mathematicians so rarely in the news, I have made it a point here at Ron’s View each year to write a post about the award. (Click on the following links for 2009, 2010, and 2011.) This year’s recipient is Endre Szemerédi, who has positions at the Alfréd Rényi Institute of Mathematics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest and the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers.

As I explain each year, the Abel 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. Regarding Szemerédi, here is a passage from the announcement of the award:

Endre Szemerédi is described as a mathematician with exceptional research power and his influence on today’s mathematics is enormous. Yet as a mathematician, Szemerédi started out late. He attended medical school for a year, and worked in a factory before he switched over to mathematics. His extraordinary talent was discovered when he was a young student in Budapest by his mentor Paul Erdös. Szemerédi lived up to his mentor’s great expectations by proving several fundamental theorems of tremendous importance. Many of his results have generated research for the future and have laid the foundations for new directions in mathematics.

Many of his discoveries carry his name. One of the most important is Szemerédi’s Theorem, which shows that in any set of integers with positive density, there are arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. Szemerédi’s proof was a masterpiece of combinatorial reasoning, and was immediately recognized to be of exceptional depth and importance. A key step in the proof, now known as the Szemerédi Regularity Lemma, is a structural classification of large graphs.

In 2010, on the occasion of Szemerédi’s 70th birthday, the Alfréd Rényi Institute of Mathematics and the János Bolyai Mathematical Society organized a conference in Budapest to celebrate his achievements. In the book, An Irregular Mind, published prior to the conference, it is stated that “Szemerédi has an ‘irregular mind’; his brain is wired differently than for most mathematicians. Many of us admire his unique way of thinking, his extraordinary vision.”

The Abel Committee notes, “Szemerédi’s approach to mathematics exemplifies the strong Hungarian problem-solving tradition. The theoretical impact of his work has been a game-changer.”

My one extremely tangential connection to this year’s award is that the chair of the Abel committee, the Norwegian mathematician Ragni Piene, is an old friend of mine. She was a year ahead of me in graduate school. Invariably, when I think of her, I recall the time we (and Dan, you too?) were sitting in the Math department lounge when she made a comment about the crows flying around outside. What was interesting, given her absolutely perfect and idiomatic control of the English language, was that she pronounced ‘crow’ to rhyme with ‘how’. I had to take a moment to realize what she was talking about. We all, of course, have words we know from reading but don’t find ourselves using or hearing in daily speech, so we grow up mis-pronouncing them. That has become my standard example, and a lesson on the difficulties of turning written English into spoken English.

But enough about me. Today let us celebrate Endre Szemerédi.

Categories: Math
  1. Daniel R. Grayson
    March 21, 2012 at 12:39 PM

    No, I don’t recall being there on that occasion. But I do recall the camaraderie when Israel Vainsencher, Ragni Piene, and I all graduated in the same year with the same advisor, Steve Kleiman.

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