In the news: Michael Atiyah

May 28, 2004

Sir Michael Atiyah this week received the Abel prize for mathematics for joint work on one of the most influential theorems of the 20th century.

Sir Michael, 75, honorary professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, won the €750,000 (£500,000) prize together with Isadore Singer, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for their Atiyah-Singer index theorem. The prize committee described the theorem as "one of the great landmarks of 20th-century mathematics".

The theorem has influenced many major developments in topology, differential geometry and quantum-field theory. Sir Michael has described it as a bridge that draws together the various fields of mathematics with their many applications in economics, engineering and physics.

Sir Michael prefers to keep things in his head rather than on paper or on computer. "I sit down for a hard day's work, and I write nothing all day - I just think. And I walk up and down because that helps keep me awake, it keeps the blood circulating, and I think and think," he said.

He's not sure what he will do with the money. He said: "If I'd had this prize when I was younger, it would have been very useful. I'll probably use it for good causes."

Born to a Scottish mother and a Lebanese father, Sir Michael spent his childhood in Khartoum. He went on to Manchester Grammar School and Cambridge University. In the 1950s, he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton University, headed by Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb.

Sir Michael has held professorships at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

He is a former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a past president of the Royal Society. He is chancellor of Leicester University.

Niels Henrik Abel was a 19th-century Norwegian mathematician, and the memorial fund was established two years ago.

Abel Prize: www.abelprisen.no/en

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