Israeli wins 'Nobel' of Mathematics

Hebrew U Prof. Lindenstrauss is first Israeli to win Fields Medal.

elon lindenstrauss 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
elon lindenstrauss 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
In a welcome contrast to recent statistics showing Israeli schoolchildren’s declining math abilities, 40-year-old Hebrew University of Jerusalem mathematician Prof. Elon Lindenstrauss was on Thursday awarded the 2010 Fields Medal – considered the “Nobel Prize” in the field.
There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics.
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It was the first time an Israeli received the award, first granted in 1936 and then quadrennially since 1950 to the world’s leading mathematicians aged 40 and below.
Lindenstrauss, whose father, Prof. Joram Lindenstrauss, also taught at HU’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics and received the Israel Prize for his outstanding work, was awarded the prestigious prize in Hyderabad, India, at the opening of the International Congress of Mathematicians, which is convened by the International Mathematical Union.
The gold medal, which is accompanied by a $15,000 award, was presented to him and three other mathematicians on Thursday morning by Indian President Pratibha Patil.
The Fields Medal is named for Prof. J.C. Fields, a University of Toronto mathematician who was secretary of the 1924 International Congress of Mathematicians in that city. He donated funds establishing the medal and outlined the criteria for earning it – that it would go to someone with great potential and who had already demonstrated significant achievements in the field.
Prof. Alex Lubotzky, a colleague of Lindenstrauss at the Einstein Institute, who was an MK for the Third Way Party between 1996 and 1999, said the young professor “received the Fields Medal in recognition of his research solving some of the most difficult and complex problems in number theory.”
He stressed that Lindenstrauss’s work “has a strong basis in methods developed by mathematicians at the Hebrew University.”
Israel is still among the elite in outstanding mathematical research, Lubotzky said, dubbing mathematics the “secular Talmud,” in that it is learning for its own sake. But nevertheless, he said, history has shown that this learning has brought a great deal of practical benefit to humanity.
The proof of the outstanding achievement of Israel in mathematics, Lubotzky added, can be seen in the leading role that Israeli mathematicians play in the International Mathematical Union, whose membership is determined on the basis of the quality and quantity of research by individuals.
“Israel is one of the 10 largest and leading state delegations represented in the organization,” he noted.
Married and the father of three living in Jerusalem, Lindenstrauss has been a Hebrew University professor for the past two years. His father, Joram, is a first cousin to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
The new laureate graduated from the Talpiot program for outstanding students in the Israel Air Force, and is a reserve major in the IDF and a winner of the Israel Defense Prize. Lindenstrauss has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and a master’s degree and a doctorate in mathematics, all from HU.
He did post-doctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and at Stanford University in the US. He also held an appointment as a professor at Princeton University.
Lindenstrauss has won a number of prizes in the past, beginning with his work as a student and including prizes from professional mathematical associations in Europe and Israel.
Among them are the Erdos Prize of the Israel Mathematical Union for 2009, the Haim Nessyahu Prize in Mathematics for his doctoral research, the Salem Prize for young mathematicians in 2004, the European Mathematical Union prize in 2004 and the Fermat Prize for Mathematics of the Toulouse Mathematics Institute.
Hebrew University President Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson said that “Israel is indeed a mathematics power‚ but hadn’t yet won this top Fields Medal until now. The age limit of 40 for winning it is definitely an obstacle for young Israeli researchers, who have to begin their academic careers later than others because of their military obligations.”
Even so, he said, Lindenstrauss has shown that talented scientists can overcome this limitation.
“People such as Prof. Lindenstrauss should be considered Israeli cultural heroes,” Ben- Sasson said.
The HU’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics was founded in 1925, concurrent with the opening of the university. The institute is considered the best in its field in Israel, said Lubotzky, with its members having won top international awards.
Among them is Prof. Robert Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005.
The institute also has had two winners of the Wolf Prize, which is awarded in Israel to scientists from around the world. Six of the institute members were Israel Prize winners, and many others are members of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In the past two years, five of the institute’s researchers won European Union scientific grants, an extraordinary achievement, Lubotzky said.
Lindenstrauss received congratulations from both Science and Technology Minister Prof. Daniel Herschkowitz and from Education Minister and Council for Higher Education chairman Gidon Sa’ar, who said the professor was “a source of pride for the Israeli system of higher education and the whole country. Israel’s future will be ensured by research at the highest level.
The development of human capital, investment in schools and higher education are the key to reaching achievements in research and science in the future.”
The other three Fields Medal recipients were Ngo Bao Chau of the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay, France (for analytic work with applications to number theory); and Stanislav Smirnov of the University of Geneva and Cedric Villani of the Henri Poincare Institute in Paris (for theoretical work in statistical physics).
The medal shows the image of the ancient Greek mathematicians Archimedes and a Latin quote attributed to him that means: “Rise above oneself and grasp the world.” The reverse side is inscribed with the Latin words for “...the mathematicians having congregated from the whole world awarded because of outstanding writings.”
The rim bears the name of the prizewinner.
Lindenstrauss was cited by the International Mathematical Union for his “far-reaching advances in ergodic theory,” which studies the statistical behavior of dynamical systems.
For a seemingly trivial example, imagine a frog making repeated jumps of the same length in the same direction, starting from the corner of a square on an infinite checkerboard.
Ergodic theory deals with questions such as, how are the frog’s landing spots distributed within the interiors of the squares and in particular, how close do they come to the squares’ corners and edges? Lindenstrauss, the International Mathematical Union said, has made leaps of his own toward understanding a crucial point known as the Littlewood conjecture, which concerns how close such frogs come to landing on edges.
He said he learned of the prize six months ago after getting an e-mail from the International Mathematical Union asking if he could call the organization. He was asked to keep it secret until the August 19 ceremony.
“It was pretty surprising,” he recalled. He described his work in mathematical dynamics as “having a system and describing how the process develops in quality and quantity.”
Asked to comment about the Fields Medal for Lindenstrauss, French-born mathematician Prof. Noah Dana- Picard, who is president of the Jerusalem College of Technology and has doctorates in both algebraic geometry and non-commutative algebra, told The Jerusalem Post that number theory is not an easy field.
It is the branch of pure mathematics concerned with the properties of numbers in general, and integers in particular, as well as the wider classes of problems that arise from their study.
“It is basic, theoretical research, but there are many applications, as in the field of encryption. The questions are short and understandable, but the answers are very long and difficult.”
Dana-Picard suggested that just as the winning of a Nobel Prize has increased awareness of the Israeli public in the field in which the laureate excelled, such as ribosomes in the cells when Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute received her Nobel in chemistry last year, the winning of the Fields Medal will encourage young Israelis to study mathematics.
Another major award in mathematics, the Abel Prize, recognizes lifetime achievement and bears a large monetary prize, but the Fields Medial has the prestige of the selection by the International Mathematical Union, which represents the world mathematics community. The youngest mathematician to receive it was Jean-Pierre Serre, who in 1954 won it at age 27.
The debate about why Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel never created a prize in mathematics has raged for decades and includes some urban myths about personal antagonism to a mathematician. But others suggest Nobel was not particularly interested in mathematics or theoretical science and wanted his award to go for inventions or discoveries of greatest practical benefit to mankind – even though mathematics is a field that clearly qualifies.
Ben Hartman adds: Earlier this week, the Hebrew University was ranked the 72nd best university in the world, in an annual poll carried out by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities poll ranks the top 500 academic institutions in the world and places 30 percent of its consideration on the number of alumni and faculty who have won Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.
The Weizmann Institute of Science placed in the top 150 this year, possibly due in part to faculty member Yonath’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Tel Aviv University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology placed in the top 150 as well, while Bar-Ilan University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev placed in the 300 to 400 range, and the University of Haifa placed in the 400 to 500 range.