Norway to the future

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Abel Prize awarded

Two days ago, the Abel Prize was awarded to mathematicians Michael F. Atiyah and Isadore M. Singer for their work on "building new bridges between mathematics and theoretical physics". The prize is awarded for

outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. The prize shall contribute towards raising the status of mathematics in society and stimulating the interest of children and young people in mathematics.

This should be saluted. The prize is named after Norway's most famous mathematician, Niels Henrik Abel, who died only 26 years old in 1827. He is primarily recognized for proving that there are no general solutions to fifth-degree and higher polynomial equations. Already on the 100th anniversary of his death, there were plans to establish a prize in his name, but history took as often before a bit longer to see this through, and the first prize was awarded in 2003. As there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, the Norwegian Academy of Science (which awards the prize) hopes that this prize can be seen as an equivalent honour. Although the Fields Medal probably will retain its status as the most prestigious award, the Abel Prize money (approx. 750KEur), as well as the less stringent award criteria, makes this prize a valuable trophy for any mathematician.

So, why am I talking about a mathematics prize where most of us do not even understand the topics the prize winners study? This prize is important for two reasons. First of all, maths deserves all the attention it can get. It is the most basic of all our knowledge of the natural world (someone would place logic before mathematics, fair enough). With our computers doing more and more of our daily calculations, it becomes more and more important that we do not lose the basic knowledge which enables us to actually make the computers do what they do. For me, it is easier to see the benefits of mathematics when it is applied in other sciences, so this year's prize is right up my alley. Although I do not have the cognitive capabilities needed to understand quantum field theories, I am able to appreciate the importance for such breakthroughs in the search for a grand unified theory in physics. And if it can be popularized down to my level by Feynman-like authors like Martin Rees, all the better. The magic of mathematics can be enjoyed even with a very limited basic knowledge (although a few good diagrams and Hubble pictures always come in handy).

Secondly, the field of international awards is a field where Norway is and should be strong. We are given the double-edged honour of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, and although the Swedes award the rest of the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize gives us a bit of international attention well fitted to our 'national portfolio'. For every prize awarded by a Norwegian institution, the recognition of this country as a science- and research-friendly country is strengthened. It may take many years before this is widely recognized as a part of the Norway brand, but it is a step in the right direction (and by now you should have understood that my field of expertise is Business and Economics, more on the national portfolio at a later date). If the prize is able to fulfil its intentions about raising the interest for mathematics amongst young people, this would be the most important achievement of all. Math skills are a sad chapter here in Norway, and everything should be done to encourage bright minds to give the field a chance. With basic knowledge of the universal language, the future becomes a little bit brighter.

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