No, There’s No Nobel in Math

It’s the very first on the Nobel Prize’s list of frequently asked questions: Is there a Nobel Prize in Mathematics?

Alas; it turns out that Alfred Nobel didn’t much appreciate the icy abstractions of mathematics. And before you ask, there’s no prize for computer science, either.

Faced with this emphatic snub, what’s the best response for the math/CS community? Should we pout? Throw tantrums? Pen angry, tear-stained letters to the King of Sweden? Gossip that Nobel was just jealous because his fiancée slept with a mathematician (fact-check: probably false)?

Though not above juicy gossip, the math/CS world has mostly pursued a different solution: Give fancy prizes of our own. Today, these five prizes rank among the highest in math and computer science:

Given to a quartet of mathematicians every four years since 1950, math’s most famous prize honors exceptional work done before the age of forty. The prize money: $15,000 Canadian.

If the age cutoff strikes you as arbitrary, and the low prize as peculiar, then congratulations! You’re quite right. The Fields began life as a way to honor early-career research that showed the promise of future breakthroughs. Only later did it take on the role of “top prize in mathematics.”

According to math historian Michael J. Barany, the trope that the Fields is the “Nobel of Math” dates to 1966, when Stephen Smale traveled to Moscow to collect his medal. The spectacle of a vocally anti-war academic traveling to Russia in 1966 didn’t sit too well with the American establishment. So, in an attempt to explain to the wider public the importance of Smale’s prize, mathematicians across the country began referring to the Fields as the “Nobel of Math.” The shorthand stuck.

First awarded in 2003, the Abel honors “contributions of extraordinary depth and influence” in mathematics. By eschewing an age requirement (and boosting the prize to Nobel-level money), it fills the gap created by the Fields.

That makes “Abel” a peculiar choice of name; after all, Niels Abel made his algebraic breakthroughs in his early twenties. He died at 26. But the prize name goes back to 1899, when Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie (a legendary figure himself) advocated for such an award. Reviving the idea a century later, Norway saw fit to keep the name.

First awarded in 1966, the prize honors contributions of “lasting and major technical importance to the computer field.”

You might imagine “Turing” was a controversial choice of name at the time; Turing had died a decade earlier after a humiliating prosecution for the crime of homosexuality. But as ACM president Vicki Hanson recounts, records from the time show little controversy. It’s testament to Turing’s extraordinary influence: whatever the anti-gay sentiments of the time, everyone knew his name was a worthy one.

In crude shorthand, it’s a Fields Medal for computer science: awarded by the same body (the International Mathematical Union) on the same timescale (every 4 years) with the same age requirement (a maximum of 40) to a researcher for “outstanding contributions in mathematical aspects of information science.”

However, whereas the Fields goes to 2 to 4 recipients, the Nevanlinna goes to just one.

A bit like a Nevanlinna prize, except yearly, this award honors “an early to mid-career fundamental innovative contribution in computing that, through its depth, impact and broad implications, exemplifies the greatest achievements in the discipline.”

**

In all, you can see that in math and computer science, no single award does the work of the Nobel. To earn an honored spot at the scientific Lindau Laureate Meetings, you need a Nobel. At the math/CS-focused Heidelberg Laureate Forum, any of these prizes will do.

And, if you ask me, that’s for the best.

Prizes are an awkward fit for the world of research, where there’s no playoff season, no championship game, nobody voted off the island, no obvious “winner.” By definition, great discoveries lack precedent. No two breakthroughs are alike, no two researchers interchangeable, and to assert their equivalence is just plain silly.

But just because prizes are arbitrary doesn’t mean that they’re worthless. They shine bright (if uneven) lights on work of exceptional value, punctuating the grind of research with moments of warmth and ceremony. The multiplicity of math and computer science awards serves (if only accidentally) to honor the sprawling truth of human inquiry, better than the singular, Oscar-esque Nobel.

Case in point: In 1994, when Andrew Wiles capped a centuries-long search for the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, he was 41. Too old for the Fields, too young for the not-yet-existent Abel. Would the official organizations let the century’s most dramatic mathematical discovery go unrecognized? What could the IMU do?

Simple: they gave Wiles an ad hoc prize, a silver plaque. It stands alone in the annals of achievement.

The same goes for all research, not just prize-worthy breakthroughs. Every act of discovery, no matter how humble, leaves its signature on the document of human thought. By nudging forward the human understanding of reality, it makes winners of us all.

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12 thoughts on “No, There’s No Nobel in Math

  1. I didn’t realize that Abel was so young when he died. Put him together with Galois and the two titans of abstract algebra lived a combined 47 years.

    Due to the vagaries of the wording of his will it is unclear whether Nobel was more interested in prizes for science or for technology. Nobel was an engineer himself, so rewarding the applications of physics and chemistry would fit closer to his own life’s work. However, the executors have chosen to recognize pure science.

    Then there is the curious “Bank of Sweden prize.” Some people will say it is not a Nobel prize, as it is not one of the original prizes. Though, it is commonly called “the Nobel prize in Economics,” and is administered by the same group.

    • I read a great quote that I’ll have to dig up, by one of Nobel’s descendants, essentially blasting the Econ prize as an act of capitalist self-congratulation.

      Interesting point about the executors’ choice to focus on pure science. I’m curious what Nobel would make of the prizes now.

    • Hey, I love literature! “Useful” would be praise too faint.

      Just saw that Ishiguro won the prize this year. A good excuse for me to read “The Remains of the Day,” which I’ve been meaning to do.

    • That’s a good point! Perhaps the Clay Millennium prizes, too. I originally wrote this for the HLF blog, so I just listed their qualifying prizes, but I’ll try to update when I get the chance.

  2. All the “bad” drawings look male, and rightly so, since only one woman was ever awarded the Fields medal, and none the Abel Prize.

    There’s hidden implicit sexism inherent in a cut-off age of 40 (hey, how many male mathematicians take time off for childbearing, nursing, and maybe a good old high-risk pregnancy before they’re forty?) and on top of that there’s the solid open sexism which denied a Fields to Karen Uhlenbeck or Claire Voisin (just listing two well-known names, not the only possible ones! oh, did I mention that Voisin has five children?).

    Here’s hoping that things will change soon. In the meantime, among the not-mentioned prizes, there’s Clay, there’s Wolf, there’s gold medal from the French CNRS…

    • Yeah, the almost-all-male winner list for these prizes does no good for anyone, especially not the researchers who miss out. 2017 gave us another example, with the no-doubt-deserving Yves Meyer winning an Abel for his work on wavelets, while the definitely-also-very-deserving Ingrid Daubechies received none.

      (And, for the record, I prefer to think of my bad drawings as androgynous! I suppose the hairless heads read as masculine, but they also lack eyebrows, ears, and noses, so I like to think they’re abstractified beyond male/female.)

  3. Pingback: An overview of math prizes – The nth Root

  4. how many male mathematicians take time off for childbearing, nursing, and maybe a good old high-risk pregnancy before they’re forty

    You think women can’t think because they are pregnant or nursing? There’s some loss of sleep, but then men suffer that too. Can you think of many women Mathematicians who would have been awarded a Field Medal but missed out only because of age?

    The 40 cut-off is to prevent what happens with the Nobel, where the awarding is almost always delayed by decades to see if the discovery (works in the case of literature) bear up over time. Resulting in some deserved people dying before it is granted, and almost all laureates well past their best.

    The funniest is Einstein, who never got one for the greatest discovery of the 20th century. Sure, he got a Nobel, but it wasn’t for Relativity. They were scared that it wasn’t going to pan out, and gave him one for photo-electric effect instead.

    • Seems that women take on way more than 50% of child-raising duties across society, although you’re right that doesn’t necessarily hold true in any particular couple. When we talk about Fields candidates, we’re looking at a small community of professional academics, so it’s hard to know how the society-wide trends come into play. I’d be curious whether the publication records of men and women show different age profiles on average. Strikes me as an empirical question, rather than something we can deduce, or extrapolate from personal experience.

      I hear you on the “we waited too long” syndrome, though I suspect you could avoid that problem without the drastic step of the age-40 cutoff.

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