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NYU Professor Wins Abel Prize

22 March 2007 (All day)
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Cheryl Sylivant

Abel scientist.
Srinivasa Varadhan has been recognized for his contributions probability theory.

Srinivasa Varadhan, a researcher at New York University (NYU) in New York City, has won the 2007 Abel Prize for mathematics. The $975,000 award--bestowed by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters--honors Varadhan's contributions to the field of probability theory, a branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of random phenomena. The Abel citation credits Varadhan for fundamental work that has "greatly expanded our ability to use computers to simulate and analyze the occurrence of rare events."

Fittingly, in the manner of a random event, the prize announcement on Thursday caught Varadhan by surprise. "It was a shock. I couldn't believe it. It's still like a dream," he told Science.

Born in Madras, India, Varadhan began to work on probability theory as an undergraduate at Madras' Presidency College in 1959. After receiving his Ph.D. from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata in 1963, his studies brought him to New York City later that year. Since 1966, he has taught at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Among Varadhan's other prizes are the Birkhoff Prize in 1994, the American Mathematical Society's Leroy Steele Prize in 1996 and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Varadhan's work on probability has implications for quantum field theory, population dynamics, finance, and traffic engineering. Probability theory is used increasingly today to help simulate random processes, Varadhan explains. "One would think the laws of physics would determine everything. But there are always things that are unpredictable," he says. For example, the probability of a catastrophic flood or an asteroid colliding with Earth might be small, but the consequences could be devastating, which makes it important for researchers to figure out such likelihoods.

Daniel Stroock, a mathematics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who has collaborated with Varadhan, says Varadhan's research has been a blessing to scientists in various disciplines: For instance, evolutionary biologists could rely on his work to calculate the chance that a specific mutation might impart a selective advantage to a species. "He's very talented and an extremely decent person, which is a rare event, itself a large deviation" from the ordinary, says Stroock.

Varadhan remains modest. "My feeling is you shouldn't let things like this get to your head. A lot of people deserve it, but so few can get it." This marks the second time in three years an NYU mathematician has won the Abel Prize. In 2005, it was given to Professor Peter Lax of the Courant Institute.

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