What is the Abel Prize?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 March 2020
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The Abel Prize is sometimes called the mathematician's Nobel, and is awarded to individuals who have contributed significant work to the field of mathematics. The first Abel Prize was awarded in 2003 to Jean-Pierre Serre of France for his work on number theory, algebraic geometry, and topology, which is the study of geometric figures and the effects of bending and stretching. Mathematicians feel that the recognition given to the field of mathematics by the Abel Prize is long overdue, as the Nobel Prizes have been awarded for over one hundred years.

The Abel Prize was originally supposed to begin in 1902, when King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway expressed an interest in creating a prize in mathematics equivalent to the Nobel. Niels Henrik Abel was a 19th century Norwegian mathematician born in 1902. Although he was only 26 when he died, Abel's work was of immense value to the field. His work on group theory and algebra is still used in a variety of situations, and most math students learn about and use his work.


The idea of an Abel Prize in mathematics had been proposed before, but the prize lacked the momentum of a large prize fund. In 1905, Sweden and Norway were separated, and the idea for a prize in mathematics died out. Some regret was expressed by mathematicians and scientists at the time. In 2001, the idea of an Abel Prize was revived, and a group convened to discuss the terms of the prize, its bylaws, and how the nomination process would work. A proposal for the Abel Prize was sent to the Prime Minister of Norway.

The Prime Minister was supportive of the idea, announcing the establishment of a fund in late 2001 to support the Abel Prize. In 2002, nominations for the first Abel Prize winner were solicited. Anyone can make a nomination for the Abel Prize, which must include a curriculum vitae for the mathematician being nominated, and an overview of the mathematician's work. Contact information for experts who can be consulted may be included. Deceased mathematicians cannot be nominated, although if a mathematician dies during the nomination process, the Abel Prize can be awarded posthumously. Mathematicians cannot nominate themselves, and the nominations remain anonymous. Prize winners are announced in the Spring.

The Abel Prize has a committee which evaluates nominees. The committee makes a recommendation to the Norwegian Academy of Letters and Sciences, which ultimately selects the laureate. The first Abel Prize carried a cash award of one million US Dollars. Events are associated with the awarding of the Abel Prize, and the committee also sponsors the Abel Symposia, a series of international academic conferences on emerging topics in mathematics.


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