Hebrew University professor awarded ‘math Nobel’

Hillel Furstenberg becomes 1st Israeli to win Abel Prize, with Yale’s Gregory Margulis, for work on ‘probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics’

2020 Abel Prize winner, Prof. Hillel Furstenberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Yosef Adest / Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
2020 Abel Prize winner, Prof. Hillel Furstenberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Yosef Adest / Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Hillel Furstenberg has become the first Israeli to win the Abel Prize, known as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. He was named as the winner of the prestigious award Wednesday by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and will share the prize with Grigory Margulis of Yale University “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics.”

The Abel Prize, established by the government of Norway in 2001 “to give the mathematicians their own equivalent of a Nobel Prize,” carries with it a cash award of 7.5 million Norwegian kroners ($834,000).

Furstenberg and Margulis invented random walk techniques, a central branch of probability theory. A random walk is a path consisting of a succession of random steps. These techniques were used to investigate mathematical objects and 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,” said Hans Munthe-Kaas, chair of the Abel committee. “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.”

A YouTube video showed the moment Furstenberg received the call informing him that he has won the Abel Prize. Furstenberg simply says, “My goodness, thank you very much,” upon receiving the news.

Furstenberg, 84, a Kristallnacht survivor, was born in Berlin in 1935. His family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in the United States. Already as an undergraduate, Furstenberg began to develop a reputation as a promising mathematician. When he published one of his earliest academic papers, rumors began to circulate that “Furstenberg” wasn’t an individual but rather a pseudonym for a group of mathematicians. How could it be that one person could pull ideas from so many different areas?

After teaching at several leading American universities, including Princeton, MIT and the University of Minnesota, Furstenberg moved to Israel in 1965 to join the Hebrew University’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics. The move helped establish Israel as a world center for mathematics, and Furstenberg went on to win the Israel Prize in 1993 and the Wolf Prize in 2007.

Professor Grigorji Margulis (Wikipedia)

“Professor Furstenberg’s Abel Prize is a true honor for Hebrew University and for Israel, as a whole,” said Hebrew University President Professor Asher Cohen. “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.”

Like Furstenberg, Russian-born Margulis was also heralded as a leading mathematician from a young age. However, being Jewish in the Soviet Union meant Margulis was unable to secure a job at Moscow University and he ultimately emigrated to the United States and began working at Yale University. Due to the ten years’ age difference between him and Furstenberg, and due to travel restrictions in the Soviet Union, the two laureates did not formally collaborate, though they did influence each other’s work.

Margulis is also a winner of the Wolf Prize in 2005 and the Fields Medal in 1978.

This year’s Abel Prize award ceremony, when King Harald V of Norway will present the prize to the laureates, had been scheduled for May 19, but has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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