ICMI

Bulletin No. 50

June 2001

Niels Henrik Abel (1802-1829) is one of the world's most notable mathematicians. He left deep tracks behind him in many fields. His points of view and his approaches were new and had decisive significance for the development of mathematics as a science. Abel solved problems that mathematicians had been struggling with for centuries, and he posed approaches to problems with which mathematicians are still working.

The year 2002 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Niels Henrik Abel, the leading man of science in the history of Norway. To mark this occasion the Government of Norway, at the suggestion of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Oslo, has undertaken to establish an Abel Prize in Mathematics, intended to present the field of mathematics with a prize on the highest level.

"We need to strengthen mathematics and the sciences. Niels Henrik Abel was an internationally known Norwegian mathematician who nearly 200 years ago made a lasting impact in the world of science. An international prize in mathematics dedicated to his name is an expression of the importance of mathematics, and is intended to encourage students and researchers."

The Norwegian Prime Minister, Mr. Jens Stoltenberg, made this announcement in a lecture at the University of Oslo in August 2001, following the Government's decision to grant NOK 200 million (approximately USD 22 million) to a fund for a new international prize in mathematics. The Abel Prize Fund will be administered by the Government of Norway, and the annual yield shall cover the prize of around NOK 5 million (approximately USD 550 000) and a major award event. Laureates will be appointed by an independent committee of international mathematicians.

"The Norwegian Government is working to focus more attention on mathematics and science than has been the case in recent years. The establishment of the Abel Prize is hoped to have several positive effects : increased interest among young people to study science, strengthening of the country's research in the field of mathematics, increased awareness of Norway as a country of knowledge and learning, as well as positive international awareness", the Prime Minister said.

Large parts of the western world are now seeing a lack of interest in science subjects. The prize is intended to underline the importance of mathematics and science and has already attracted wide support, in Norwegian as well as in international circles. Among others, the European Mathematical Society and the International Mathematical Union are behind the initiative. The Executive Committee of IMU, in its recent annual meeting that took place at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, considered the creation of the Abel Prize as the most important project in many years for the development of mathematics worldwide, in fact as capable of greatly changing the scenario within a few years of its establishment. Of course, the question of having an award for mathematics similar to the Nobel Prize is a century old, and its lack is a perpetually discussed feature of the scientific work of the mathematics community.

An Abel Prize was first proposed in 1902, by King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway. However, plans were dropped as the union between the two countries was dissolved in 1905. Thus, the field of mathematics has never had an international prize of the same public dimensions and importance as the Nobel Prize, in spite of the Fields Medal, which is currently the highest prize in mathematics.

(From press releases)