Hillel 'Harry' Furstenberg is a member of both the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities as well as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Hillel 'Harry' Furstenberg is a member of both the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities as well as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Hillel 'Harry' Furstenberg is a member of both the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities as well as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. (Photo: Yosef Adest)

World's top math prize goes to 2 retired professors

This is the first time that a teacher from the Einstein Institute of Mathematics has won the prestigious award.

Who says your greatest professional achievements can't come after retirement?

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced on Tuesday that it will award the Abel Prize to Hillel Furstenberg at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Gregory Margulis at Yale University “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics." Both men are retired and will split the $700,000 prize.

The Abel Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, was established in 2001 to recognize contributions that are of extraordinary depth and influence. Mathematical genius John Nash, whose life was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie "A Beautiful Mind," was a previous winner of the prize.

Dr. Furstenberg is the first Israeli to win the award. It is particularly heartening for the 84-year-old, who has spent his career following his intellectual hero – Albert Einstein. They both studied at Princeton University and, in 1965, Furstenberg joined the faculty of the Einstein Institute of Mathematics at Hebrew University, a school that Einstein helped establish in the early 20th century. Furstenberg's office on the school's Jerusalem campus is mere steps away from the official Albert Einstein Archives, home to 80,000 documents from the famed scientist.

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

As for Furstenberg himself, he was shocked when he heard the news. "I received this notice with total disbelief," he said. "I knew the list of the former laureates of the Abel Prize ... and I simply felt that these were people in a certain league, and I was not in that league." Perhaps he's being too humble. When he published one of his earliest academic papers, rumors began to circulate that “Furstenberg” wasn’t an individual person but rather a pseudonym for a group of mathematicians. His work is now so widely respected that he even has a mathematical equation – the Furstenberg-Sárközy theorem – named after him.

Furstenberg met his wife Rochelle, a journalist and literary critic, in Israel, and the two have been married for more than 60 years. Together they have five children, 16 grandchildren and a growing number of great-grandchildren. So for him, the award is just one more accomplishment in a long career that has included stints at the University of Minnesota and MIT.

"Part of the beauty of mathematics is that ideas from different fields come together," he explained. "There must be something behind all this, some greater harmony to which these things belong. In that sense, I could say the aspect of the beauty of mathematics is what's been attracting me to the subject. And somehow that seems to be guiding my work in some sense. If it's had an impact of that kind, then I would be very happy."

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World's top math prize goes to 2 retired professors
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced it will award the Abel Prize to Hillel Furstenberg and Gregory Margulis.