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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


The Million Dollar Professor

Distinguished professor John Milnor, co-director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, will receive the Abel Prize for 2011. Described as the Nobel Prize for math, the Norwegian award carries a cash prize of 6 million kronor: nearly $1 million.


He will receive the award on May 24 in Oslo, where His Majesty King Harald V of Norway will deliver it personally.


“I have no significant plans,” Milnor said when asked what he intends to do with the cash prize.


Age has never stood in the way of Milnor’s research. By 18 years old, he was awarded $25,000 by the internationally renowned William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. One year later, Milnor proved the Fary-Milnor Theorem of Knots and found himself between the pages of textbooks.


“All of Milnor’s work display features of great research, profound insights, vivid imagination, striking surprises and supreme beauty,” according to a statement released by the Abel Committee.


Milnor is now 80 years old and still conducts his life-long research of advanced geometry in a quiet, rooftop office in the Stony Brook Math Tower. Standing over 6 feet tall, Milnor is quite shy and uncomfortable with the amount of media attention his award has attracted.


“My ambition is to lead a quiet life and keep on doing what I have been doing, which has been very difficult in the last few weeks,” Milnor said.


The specifics of his research may seem nearly impossible to comprehend, but focus mostly on dynamical systems, the study of objects like bodies of water and how they change in regards to the law of motion. The study of dynamics helps scientists explain how water reacts to a ripple, or how Saturn’s gravity affects its many moons.


“These physical problems lead to abstract mathematical models, which are very relevant to understanding the physical world,” Milnor said.


Milnor has received many awards and honors during his long career. He received the Fields Medal in 1962 for his work in differential topology following three Steele Prizes for mathematics in 1989, 2004 and 2011. Milnor has written eight books, contributed to nearly a dozen journal articles and has been granted prestigious memberships to the National Academy of Sciences the Russian Academy of Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences.


James Glimm, as chair of the applied mathematics and statistics department, relates Milnor as a flagpole. After a while, the ground fills in and enough people can reach up and benefit from what’s at the top of that point – taking off the flag, then running with it.


“The nature of Milnor’s proofs involve constructions that will be quite useful when people simplify the relevant portions of it,” Glimm said.

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