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HU mathematician Hillel Furstenberg awarded world’s top math prize

  • October 15, 2020

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters today
(Wednesday, March 18 2020), announced it will award the Abel Prize to HillelFurstenberg 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”. 


The Abel Prize was established by the Government of Norway
in 2001 “to give the mathematicians their own equivalent of a Nobel Prize”
and carries with it a cash award of 7.5 million Norwegian Kroners ($834,000
USD).  Furstenberg, a Kristallnacht survivor, is the first Israeli to win
this prestigious prize.


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


“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,” shared 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.”


Furstenberg 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, M.I.T. and the University of Minnesota, Furstenberg moved
to Israel in 1965 to join Hebrew University’s Einstein Institute of
Mathematics.  This move helped establish Israel as a world center for
mathematics, and Furstenberg went on to win the Israel Prize in 1993 and the
Wolf Prizes in 2007.


“Professor Furstenberg’s Abel Prize is a true honor for
Hebrew University and for Israel, as a whole”, shared 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 them and to
travel restrictions in the Soviet Union, the two laureates did not formally
collaborate, however, they did influence each other’s work.


This year’s Abel Prize Award Ceremony will take place at a
later date when His Majesty King Harald V of Norway will present the Abel Prize
to the laureates.  The original ceremony, scheduled for May 19, has been
postponed due to the corona outbreak.​

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