Brussels, 21 Feb 2005
Ever since Alfred Noble announced his plans to establish annual prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine in 1897, there were those in the mathematics community who called for a similar award to be set up in their field of research.
It was in 1902, the centenary of the birth of the brilliant Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, that the idea of creating a prize in his honour was first discussed. Yet despite widespread support for the idea, it would be almost another hundred years before, in 2001, the Norwegian government established the Abel Prize with a fund of 200 million NOK (24 million euro).
Since then, the annual six million NOK (720,000 euro) prize has been awarded twice - first in 2003 to the French mathematician Jean-Pierre Serre, and then in 2004, when the prize was shared between Sir Michael Francis Atiyah and Isadore M Singer for their discovery and proof of the index theorem.
Sir Michael was one of the guests of honour at an Abel Prize event in Brussels on 18 February, held to recognise the contribution of the prize to raising the profile of mathematics, and to mark the meeting of the Abel Committee to nominate this year's laureate.
Also present was Belgian MEP and former EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. 'I salute the importance of this initiative,' said Mr Busquin. 'The Abel Prize is recognised as the most important of its kind, and it has given back to mathematics its rightful cachet.'
As well as recognising the achievements of outstanding individual mathematicians, the Abel Prize was also established in order to raise the status of maths and encourage children and young people to take an interest. Mr Busquin acknowledged this, saying: 'Fundamental research is the most powerful educational vector [...]. Europe must find an additional 600,000 researchers if it is to meet the three per cent objective, and the example of outstanding scientists such as the Abel Prize winners will certainly encourage young people to enter research.'
In presenting the audience with some background to the prize, Jan Fridthjof Bernt, President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, which administers the Abel Fund, said that the initiative has already proved to be 'most successful'. 'And we are not entirely dissatisfied that the Abel Prize is now widely referred to as 'the Nobel Prize for maths',' he added.
Professor Bernt expressed his hope that the Abel Prize would help to draw attention to maths as an academic discipline and raise its profile within society in general. 'But it is the quality of our laureates that will be the main test of the success of the prize,' he stressed.
With that, the audience was introduced to Professor Sir Michael Atiyah, the joint winner of the 2004 prize from the UK, now an honorary professor at Edinburgh University. Sir Michael said that he is proud to be a holder of the prize, and in a joking reference to the founder of the more famous Nobel Prizes, he added: 'I would much prefer to win a prize named after a great mathematician than one named after the man who invented dynamite!'
The Atiyah-Singer index theorem, for which the two long term colleagues were awarded the Abel Prize, has been described as 'one of the great landmarks of twentieth century mathematics.' Its co-authors are credited with 'repairing a rift between the worlds of pure mathematics and theoretical particle physics', thus initiating a cross-fertilisation that counts as one of the most exciting scientific developments of the last decades.
Despite being recognised for having given birth to new areas of applied mathematics, however, Sir Michael was keen to emphasise the importance of supporting pure research. 'Mathematics is of central importance to society, but it's also important to simply encourage fundamental research for its own sake by those who have an aptitude for it,' he said.
Speaking to CORDIS News, Sir Michael expressed his view that support for science at European level is focused more on outputs and technological ends. 'Which is perfectly right and proper,' he added 'but we also have to consider the fundamental research that underpins it - to focus too much on the immediate output is short-sighted.'
Many would point to the proposed creation of a European Research Council as evidence of the EU's commitment to fundamental research, but while Sir Michael may well view this as a positive step, he has a particular concern that his own chosen field will face structural disadvantages. 'Any large scale institution [such as the ERC] must have bureaucratic structures for high cost areas of science. But maths is one of the cheapest areas, and its hard to try and apply the same regulatory framework to all disciplines,' he said.
Sir Michael continued: 'We need to tailor administrative structures to the needs of different areas, otherwise those areas that don't fit in to the system will get left behind. It doesn't cost any more money, it just requires the frameworks to be sensitive to the needs of different disciplines.'
The challenge of maintaining a strong research community in mathematics is an especially important one, given the contribution that many mathematicians go on to make in other scientific fields such as biology and economics. 'Without a healthy maths base, lots of other areas will suffer,' argues Sir Michael. But he sees many causes for optimism, not least in the form of next year's Abel Prize. 'There are no shortage of quality candidates for the award, and I for one am looking forward to learning the panel's choice,' he concluded.
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