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American and Frenchman Share 2008 Abel Prize for Mathematics

March 28, 2008

John Griggs Thompson and Jacques Tits have won the 6 million kroner ($1.2 million, 750,000 Euro) Abel Prize for mathematics for their contributions to group theory.

Thompson, 75, teaches at the University of Florida. Tits, 77, is professor emeritus at College de France in Paris and became a French citizen in 1974.

The Abel Prize, first awarded in 2003, was created by the Norwegian government and named after 19th-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel. Professor Ole Didrik Lärum, the President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, announced this year's winners on March 27. The Abel Award ceremony will take place in Oslo on the 20th of May. King Harald will present the Prize.

Thompson and Tits have contributed important ideas to group theory, a filed in which mathematicians seek to understand the relationships between reflections and rotations of an icosahedron. The awards committee noted that "The achievements of John Thompson and of Jacques Tits are of extraordinary depth and influence. They complement each other and together form the backbone of modern group theory."

In a simplified example of their work, University of Oslo mathematician Arne B. Sletsjoe made use of a Rubik's cube to demonstrate how mathematicians calculate the number and order of rotations to get any or all of the cube's sides to be a specific color. "From a group theoretic point of view," he said, "this is not so complicated.” However, "To remember and to accomplish the sequences is quite another business. Rubik's cube is not only a nice example of applied group theory, it is definitely evidence of the fact that theory is one thing, to put it into practice is quite another."

Thompson, who was born in Ottawa, Kansas, and graduated from Yale University in 1955, received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1959. He taught at Harvard University and then at the University of Chicago, before moving to Britain, where he spent more than 20 years teaching at the University of Cambridge.

Tits, born in Brussels, was admitted to the Free University of Brussels at age 14, and received his doctorate at the age of 20. He taught there (and at the University of Bonn in 1964) before he accepted the chair of group theory at the College de France 1973. He retired in 2000.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Start Date: 
Friday, March 28, 2008