Who won the 2021 Abel Prize – Mathematician’s Pride?

Lalit Koundaal

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters decided to confer the Abel Prize for 2021 upon László Lovász belonging to the Alfred Renyi Institute of Mathematics in Budapest, Hungary, and Avi Wigderson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, US. The winners will share the prize, worth 7.5 million Norwegian kroner (US$886,000).

Abel Prize which is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics is awarded annually for research and exemplary work in the field of mathematics. Does that mean that Nobel Prize does not recognize experts in the field of mathematics?

That’s true! They don’t have and there are number of stories floating around for missing out on this prime field of expertise.

Abel Prize was set up in commemoration of brilliant Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel of the 19th century.

The real intention behind setting up the Abel Prize is to raise the status of mathematics in society and kindle the interest of young minds in mathematics. 

What was the award for in 2021? Well, the citation read – “It was for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics and leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics.”

The legacy 

Lovász is the third Hungarian-born winner, and Wigderson is the second Israeli since the Abel Prize was inaugurated in 2003. With an exception of Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck, all winners so far have been men. Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck won the 2019 Abel Prize, becoming the first woman ever to receive this prestigious award.

An Indian Mathematician, SR Srinivasa Varadhan, was conferred upon the Abel Prize in 2007 for his contributions to probability theory. While doing so he created a unified theory of large deviations.

László Lovász & Avi Wigderson worked in developing the field of computational complexity which mainly studies the speed and efficiency of the computer algorithm.

Algorithms are nothing but the set of instructions being followed to solve a problem/complete a task. In our daily life, we use so many apps to make our life simpler right from fitness apps to banking, gaming, and so on. These apps are following an algorithm that is not known to the user. The user is happy with the result. All this is achievable due to an overlap of mathematics and computer science. 

About the winners 

László Lovász

The Abel Prize Laureate 2021 László Lovász
The Abel Prize Laureate 2021 László Lovász (Credit: Hungarian Academy of Sciences/Laszlo Mudra)

László Lovász is a dual citizen of Hungary & the United States. He is a discrete mathematician and his books along with his work epitomize this fact. His research work involves his works in collaboration with Paul Erdős, a renowned Hungarian mathematician, in the 1970s, when he developed complementary methods to Erdős’s existing probabilistic graph theory techniques. It was only Paul Erdős who introduced Lovász to Graph Theory at a very young age.

Lovász developed the LLL algorithm for approximating points in lattices and bases. The LLL algorithm has been described as “one of the fundamental algorithms” and has been used in several practical applications, including polynomial factorization algorithms and cryptography. His career only beams of being spectacular, nothing less.

Avi Wigderson

The Abel Prize Laureate 2021 Avi Wigderson
The Abel Prize Laureate 2021 Avi Wigderson (Credit: Dan Komoda/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ USA)

Avi Wigderson was born in Haifa, a northern Israeli port city in Israel. He studied in Israel, the United States, and held various academic positions before moving to the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in 1999. 

Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), located in Princeton, NJ, is one of the world’s foremost centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry dedicated to independent study across the sciences and humanities. Avi Wigderson’s Abel Prize citation mentions his contributions to areas of computer science. 

One of the major pieces of Wigderson’s work that has gained relevance in the information economy involves ‘zero-knowledge proofs’ which is a way of allowing somebody to verify the correctness of a statement without revealing any information.

Zero-knowledge proofs are crucial in certifying digital currencies such as Bitcoin, and can also help to verify a person’s identity.

Wigderson has done phenomenal work in the areas of computational complexity theory which deals with the power and limitations of algorithms, randomized computation, algorithms and optimization, circuit complexity, proof complexity, quantum computation, cryptography, and understanding of fundamental graph properties.

What is discrete mathematics?

Discrete mathematics is part of the mathematics focusing on the study of discrete objects, the objects which are distinct or unconnected. Now, what kinds of problems are solved using discrete mathematics? Given below are some examples –

  • How many ways are there to choose a valid password in a computer system?
  • How can a circuit which adds two integers be designed?
  • How many valid internet addresses are there?

Conclusion 

The modern edifice of computer science is standing erected entirely on discrete mathematics; particularly combinatorics and graph theory. This means to learn fundamental algorithms used by computer programmers, the student will need a solid background of combinatorics and graph theory. 

But unfortunately, it’s not so. The curriculum focuses on continuous mathematics. How many students find continuous mathematics interesting? Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus is found boring because students don’t see any application in the real life. The abstract nature of these subjects repels them.

By contrast, discrete maths (like counting & probability) allows students to very quickly explore challenging and interesting problems of the “real world”. Discrete Maths is the backbone of computer science and this age of computers makes discrete maths a subject we can’t dispense with. 

Now, since discrete maths is the mathematical language of data science and its importance has increased dramatically, the current set of awards entails the importance of the subject and makes us ponders upon the ways to extract the maximum out of the budding mathematician.

Congratulations László Lovász and Avi Wigderson for this outstanding contribution!!

Sources-

https://www.abelprize.no/

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00694-9

https://www.newsclick.in/Abel-Prize-2021-Awarded-Enriching-Link-Mathematic-Computer-Science

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abel_Prize

https://www.ias.edu/news/2021/abel-prize

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