Hebrew University Professor wins Abel Prize - the 'Nobel of Math'

Professor Furstenberg survived Kristallnacht, eventually moving to Israel in 1965 and helping to establish the State as a global centre of mathematical excellence.

Professor Furstenberg on Hebrew University Campus, March, 2020 (photo credit: YOSEF ADEST/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Professor Furstenberg on Hebrew University Campus, March, 2020
The Hebrew University’s Hillel Furstenberg has been awarded the Abel Prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The prize is often referred to as the Nobel of  mathematics.
The prize was jointly awarded to Professor Furstenberg and Gregory Margulis at Yale University “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics.” Although the pair have not formally collaborated, their work builds upon each other’s contributions to mathematical theory.
Specifically, Furstenberg and Margulis invented random walk techniques, which map paths consisting of a succession of random steps. The theory has become a central branch of probability theory and has been used to investigate mathematical objects. It has also introduced probabilistic methods to solve many open problems in group theory, number theory, combinatorics and graph theory.
“Furstenberg and Margulis stunned the mathematical world by their ingenious use of probabilistic methods and random walks to solve deep problems in diverse areas of mathematics,” Hans Munthe-Kaas, chairman of the Abel prize committee, said.
“They brought down the traditional wall between pure and applied mathematics,” he continued, “and opened up a wealth of new results… with applications to communication technology and computer science.”
Born in Berlin in 1935, Furstenberg lived through Kristallnacht before his family fled Nazi Germany in 1939, settling in the United States. There he studied mathematics, where even as an undergraduate he developed a reputation as a promising mind.
When one of his earliest academic papers was published, rumors circulated that “Furstenberg” wasn’t a person but a pseudonym for a group working together, as his colleagues couldn’t understand how it could be that one person could pull wide-ranging ideas together from many different areas.
Following a teaching career at American institutions, including Princeton, MIT and the University of Minnesota, Furstenberg moved to Israel in 1965, where he joined the Hebrew University’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics.
“Prof. Furstenberg’s Abel Prize is a true honor for the Hebrew University and for Israel as a whole,” Hebrew University president Prof. Asher Cohen said. “Hillel is not only a world-class mathematician but a mensch and mentor to scores of students who have already changed the face of mathematics. We couldn’t be prouder of his award, a Nobel-level achievement.”
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis congratulated Furstenberg on winning the Abel Prize, saying: “Prof. Furstenberg is a breakthrough mathematical genius, an Israel Prize winner, who has also provided a long line of successors, his students at the Hebrew University over the years.”
His Majesty King Harald V of Norway will present the Abel Prize to the laureates at a ceremony to be held later this year. The original ceremony, scheduled for May 19, has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The prize carries a cash award of 7.5 million Norwegian kroner (NIS 2.7m.).