In 1829, 26-year-old mathematician Niels Henrik Abel lost his long battle against hunger, disease, and the bitter cold of Norway. Now, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters is hoping to use Abel's name to fill the conspicuous lack of a mathematics Nobel. Today, it awarded the first Abel Prize in mathematics to Jean-Pierre Serre, a mathematician at the Collège de France in Paris.
The new Abel Prize is intended to be a yearly Nobel-type honor for mathematicians, and by all accounts, the first recipient is top-notch. "For the first prize, we wanted to choose a unique individual who was a leader in mathematics through his lifetime," says David Mumford, a mathematician at Brown University and member of the Abel Prize's selection committee. "[Serre] has gone through three fields and transformed each of them."
The 77-year-old Serre has left his mark on the mathematical disciplines of topology, the study of the properties of shapes in space; algebraic geometry, which combines the power of geometric ideas with the abstract ideas of equations; and number theory, which explores the fundamental properties of and relationships between numbers. "The thing that impressed me the most was that he made important contributions in different areas, and the respect his work was held in by mathematicians," says John Ball, a mathematician at the University of Oxford, also on the selection committee.
"I'm very happy to be the first one of the series, as it is going to be a series of prizes," says Serre, who will take home approximately $828,000. "I was surprised, as there are quite a lot of mathematicians who could win the award."