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U.S. Mathematician Becomes First Woman To Win the Abel, the 'Nobel Prize' for Mathematics

"I find that I am bored with anything I understand," says Abel Prize winner Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck.

American mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck has become the first woman to win the Abel Prize — the "Nobel Prize" of mathematics! The 76-year-old professor emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin and visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has made wide-ranging advances in mathematics that influence many sciences, including quantum physics and string theory, and pioneered a new field of mathematics called geometric analysis. "She did things nobody thought about doing, and after she did, she laid the foundations of a branch of mathematics," says Sun-Yung Alice Chang, a Princeton mathematician who sat on the prize committee. Hans Munthe-Kaas, chair of the Abel Committee, added that "her perspective has pervaded the field and led to some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics over the last 40 years."

Dr. Uhlenbeck, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, struggled in her early career because of "anti-nepotism" rules that prevented her and her husband, who is a biophysicist, from holding positions at the same university, even in different departments. She is also forthright about the difficulty of being a woman in a male-dominated STEM field: even today, only 15% of pure mathematics tenure-track positions are held by women, one of the lowest rates in all the sciences. "Looking back now I realize that I was very lucky," observes Dr. Uhlenbeck. "I was in the forefront of a generation of women who actually could get real jobs in academia. [But] I certainly very much felt I was a woman throughout my career. That is, I never felt like one of the guys." Her primary role model even came from outside her field, noting that "like many people in my generation, my role model was Julia Child.”

In the prize announcement, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters said it was honoring Dr. Uhlenbeck for "her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics." She has received a number of honors for her many contributions to mathematics, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1983. In 1990, she also became the second woman ever, and the first since Emmy Noether in 1932, to give one of the highlighted plenary talks at the International Congress of Mathematicians quadrennial meeting.

Beyond her scholarly contributions, Dr. Uhlenbeck has also left an impact on the culture of mathematics. In 1994, she founded the Program for Women and Mathematics at Princeton, which is dedicated to providing intensive summer classes for female undergraduate and graduate students. She says that, if mathematics really wants to draw on the most talented minds, the field needs to change its attitudes to female mathematicians. "I remain quite disappointed at the numbers of women doing mathematics and in leadership positions," Dr. Uhlenbeck said in 2007. "This is, to my mind, primarily due to the culture of the mathematical community as well as harsh societal pressures from outside." Although she's proud that many women in mathematics look up to her, she adds that "it’s hard to be a role model because what you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed.... I may be a wonderful mathematician and famous because of it, but I’m also very human."

Prior to the creation of the Abel Prize in 2003, the Fields Medal, which is awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40, was the most prestigious award in math; Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani remains the only woman ever to win that award. The Abel, whose winners are selected by a committee appointed by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, is modeled on the Nobel Prizes, with an annual award recognizing an exceptional mathematician. It also comes with a prize of 6 million Norwegian kroner (around $700,000), which Dr. Uhlenbeck will receive on May 21 in a ceremony in Oslo. At this point, she says she hasn't decided what she will do with the award, but one thing is certain: she has no intention of setting aside her continued research. "[I have] an addiction to intellectual excitement," she asserts. "I find that I am bored with anything I understand."

Books & Resources Celebrating Women In math

One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale

One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale

Written by: Demi
Illustrated by: Demi
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Clever Rani in this story shows that, with a solid understanding of math, it's easy to outsmart a selfish raja! Rani's village is starving, and the raja has more than enough rice to feed them all — but in his greed, he hoards it. When Rani does him a good deed and he offers to let her pick a reward in return, however, she asks for a seemingly humble amount: one grain of rice, doubled every day for thirty days. It doesn't seem like much... until you add it up. Kids will love the procession of animals that bring Rani's reward, from one grain in the beak of a bird to 256 elephants carrying enough rice to feed everyone. The vivid illustrations and poetic language make this a stand-out telling of this traditional tale.

Infinity and Me

Infinity and Me

Written by: Kate Hosford
Illustrated by: Gabi Swiatkowska
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Uma feels so small when she looks up at the night sky. How can she ever possibly imagine infinity? But as she wonders, she starts thinking of different ways to think about this enormous concept. Is infinity an endless racetrack? A number that grows forever? An ever-growing family tree? Can infinity even appear in an ice cream cone? This contemplative picture book takes a big idea and makes it accessible to budding young philosophers who, even though they're small, are already starting to think about things that never end.

Counting on Katherine

How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Counting on Katherine

How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Written by: Helaine Becker
Illustrated by: Dow Phumiruk
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Katherine Johnson loved to count, and despite the prejudices against both women and African Americans, she was determined to find a way to make her love of math into a career. As one of NASA's "human computers," Johnson hand calculated elaborate equations... including the trajectories that helped launch the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. When disaster befell the Apollo 13 mission, it was Johnson's flight-path calculations that brought the astronauts safely home. This inspiring biography of the mathematician catapulted to fame by Hidden Figures celebrates a love of math and encourages kids to follow their passions. For another picture book about Johnson and her colleagues, check out Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Written by: Laurie Wallmark
Illustrated by: April Chu
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Thanks to her mathematically talented mother, Anne Isabella Byron, young Ada had the opportunity to develop her remarkable intelligence. Years later, when she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, he named her the Enchantress of Numbers for her astounding mathematical skills. Little did either of them know that, when she designed an algorithm for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she would be making history — by writing the world’s first computer program! With vivid artwork and intriguing anecdotes about Lovelace's genius, this picture book biography pays homage to a little-known but deeply influential figure in computing history.

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

As a 7-year-old during WWII, Raye Montague toured a captured German submarine and immediately set her sights on becoming an engineer. Little did she know that sexism and racism would challenge her dream every step of the way. Raye ended up working at the US Navy as a typist, studying engineering at night. One day, when all the engineers were sick with the flu, she astonished everyone by completing all of their work. She went on to become the first person to design a ship on a computer and the Navy's first female ship designer. This inspiring picture book from the Amazing Scientists series celebrates a pioneer who changed ship design forever.

You Should Meet: Katherine Johnson

You Should Meet: Katherine Johnson

Written by: Thea Feldman
Illustrated by: Alyssa Petersen
Recommended Age: 6 - 8

She's been called one of the greatest American minds of all time, and when NASA first started using computers to calculate launch trajectories, they only trusted them after she double-checked the math! Katherine Johnson broke both gender and racial boundaries when she started working for NASA in the 1950s as a human computer, performing the complex calculations necessary to launch rockets, satellites, and eventually, the Apollo 11 moon mission. New chapter book readers who are fans of the hit movie Hidden Figures will be excited to read their very own book about Johnson.

Nothing Stopped Sophie

The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain

Nothing Stopped Sophie

The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain

Written by: Cheryl Bardoe
Illustrated by: Barbara McClintock
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

People in the 18th century thought learning math could hurt a woman's health, so when Sophie Germain was a child, her parents even took away her candles at night so she couldn't see to study. However, she was determined to follow her dreams, and spent six years working to prove a math problem that male scholars had declared unsolvable. When she developed an equation that could predict patterns of vibrations — which laid the groundwork for much of modern architecture — she became the first woman to win a grand prize from France's Academy of Sciences. This exuberant picture book biography captures the triumphant life of a pioneering and under-recognized mathematician.

Hidden Women: The African-American Mathematicians of NASA Who Helped America Win the Space Race

Hidden Women: The African-American Mathematicians of NASA Who Helped America Win the Space Race

Written by: Rebecca Rissman
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

In the early days of the space program, segregation was still the law, and most people thought that girls didn't belong in science. But at NASA, female African-American mathematicians challenged both gender and racial barriers: these "human computers" calculated the launch trajectories for America's rockets and satellites, and eventually, even for the first crewed space flights. In this narrative nonfiction book, young readers learn about these dedicated women, and then get a look at how women working at NASA today feel about their place in the space agency.

Power In Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics

Power In Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics

Written by: Talithia Williams
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From 4th century Alexandria to China's Qing Dynasty to the modern day, women have defied convention and made their mark in the world of mathematics! In this full-color volume, Dr. Talithia Williams shares the stories of groundbreaking mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists whose love of numbers have driven profound discoveries and phenomenal technological advances. For teens who have ever wondered just how far math can take you, this book provides the answer, along with plenty of inspiration from historical figures — and the women who are making history today.

Pi Math Circle T-Shirt

Pi Math Circle T-Shirt

Brand: Gbond Apparel
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Celebrate the beauty of mathematics with this Pi Math Circle shirt from Gbond Apparel! At the root of every circle is Pi, and this shirt turns hundreds of digits' worth of Pi into a circle around the symbol itself. It's the perfect way to show your love of the elegance of math. This women's shirt is 100% premium cotton and tagless for extra comfort; it's printed in Minnesota with eco-friendly, non-toxic inks and is available in both navy and black.

Amazon.co.uk

Math Genius Socks

Math Genius Socks

Brand: Socksmith
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Show off your smarts with these socks that look just like a chalkboard covered in math scribblings! These fun socks from Socksmith are a cotton/nylon/Spandex blend and come in your choice of two colors: black with red trim and green with black trim. These socks are available in one size, which fits women's shoe sizes 5 - 10. For another set of math-themed socks, check out the Genius Socks from Foot Traffic.

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