Maximal Recognition for Research on Minimal Surfaces

Karen Uhlenbeck, MA’66, PhD’68
Karen Uhlenbeck, MA’66, PhD’68

In March, mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck, MA’66, PhD’68, H’08, became the first woman to win the Abel Prize, awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for outstanding work in the field of mathematics.

Uhlenbeck, a Visitor in the School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study, got the call from Norway announcing she had won as she left Sunday services at her church in Princeton, New Jersey. She is the 19th mathematician to win the award, which is modeled after the Nobel Prize, since it was established in 2002.

The Abel committee cited “her fundamental work in geometric analysis and gauge theory, which has dramatically changed the mathematical landscape. Her theories have revolutionized our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, and more general minimization problems in higher dimensions.” Her work has had a vital impact on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.

A lifelong voracious reader, outdoorswoman, and advocate for gender equality in math and science, Uhlenbeck spent most of her career at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is professor emerita of mathematics and holds the Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair.

Why did you enroll at Brandeis for your doctorate?

I didn’t want to go to Harvard or MIT because I knew I would be miserable there. The situation for women was grim. At Harvard, I would have been THE woman. And I was not interested in being THE woman.

What was it like at Brandeis?

People maybe looked at me askance a little bit, and several men told me women should be at home raising families. There was some initial reluctance, but I was such a good student that I didn’t get much flack at all for being a woman. There were a few other women in graduate school with me, though I don’t remember them very well. But there weren’t any women faculty. Or postdocs.

It was a very young department. My thesis adviser, Richard Palais, was maybe 12 years older than I. Right from the beginning, I took part in faculty seminars, and I remember speaking in one of the seminars. I wanted to do math, and I was encouraged at Brandeis.

What was it like to be a woman mathematician when you started your career in the late 1960s?

Up until the late ’60s or so, women were simply not considered for many graduate programs, and many universities would not hire women. But when I came along, some people did hire women. After me, you’ll find lots of women coming along.

You are the first woman to win the Abel Prize, and probably the first woman in many aspects of your mathematical career. How does it feel?

I regard myself as a placeholder, because opportunities have been opening for women for hundreds of years, actually. When you get to be as old as I am, you see things from a historical perspective. All the steps that women have taken — gaining the right to vote, seizing opportunities in so many fields — I’ve been part of that. I was in the right place at the right time.

What does the Abel mean to you?

It’s complicated for me because I did most of the work 30 or 40 years ago, so it means thinking about my past a lot. The people it means the most to are my younger women colleagues. The women I’ve encouraged are mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and have some experience that it hasn’t always been so easy. I’m glad to be able to stand for something that means a lot to them.

You have said that Julia Child was your role model. What did you find inspiring about the famous chef?

She was this big, tall woman, very intense, very good-natured, smart. She was not your properly dressed, well-behaved woman. She was enthusiastic, a little bit disheveled, with real presence.

Virginia Woolf was another voice I listened to. I eventually read everything she wrote, including the famous treatise about women in society, “A Room of One’s Own.” Since I read tremendous quantities of nonfiction, I found that fiction offered a lot of women role models. I found Virginia Woolf an inspiring figure.

When did you know you wanted to be a mathematician?

I didn’t know anything about mathematical thinking until I got to college, and I turned out to be quite good at it. Basically, nothing else presented itself to me. I think, in fact, I became really determined to become a mathematician a couple of years after I got my PhD. I found myself looking for math problems to work on and began thinking about mathematics in a creative way. And that’s when I actually started becoming a mathematician.

How has it changed for girls and women in math since you were a girl?

It’s not comparable. I don’t like to talk about what it used to be like; I don’t really want anyone to know, but there’s no comparison.

Is the playing field level for boys and girls in math and science today?

The playing field is not level, and it probably never will be, but opportunities are there, the doors are open. At some point, so much depends on personality, as well as opportunity and background. Lots of girls are going to do these things, though some will be discouraged by their guidance counselors from taking Advanced Placement in math and so forth, but it certainly is not the way it used to be.

How do you explain to people what you do and its impact?

It’s hard to explain. I don’t understand the impact of what I do, either. Mathematics is to me a kind of human thought that mathematicians create. They create concepts, ideas and structures in their head. The actual substance of mathematics is not exactly language, but mathematicians use ideas to create a language. And this language turns out to be extremely important in describing reality. I don’t understand the process at all, to what extent these ideas become absorbed into mathematical thinking.

But you can’t doubt that mathematics is incredibly important in describing the world as we see it in 2019. Our world is based on technology, which has two ingredients: hardware and the software, and the software is all mathematics. You can’t do anything on a telephone or computer or GPS without mathematical modeling. It’s not an exact correspondence, but it’s amazing how mathematical ideas become useful somehow.