U.S. and French mathemiticians win Norway’s Abel prize

Associated Press

OSLO, Norway —John Griggs Thompson of the United States and Jacques Tits of France won the $1.2 million Abel Prize for mathematics Thursday for their contributions to the group theory of algebra.

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

The awards committee said the two helped shape modern group theory in algebra. The theory, also called the science of symmetries, can be used to solve such everyday challenges as a Rubik’s Cube, or be used in physics, computer science and geometry.

"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," the citation said.


The Abel Prize, first awarded in 2003, was created by the Norwegian government and named after 19th Century Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel.

The committee said Thompson and Tits each invented important new concepts in group theory, where mathematicians seek to understand the relation between reflections and rotations of a icosahedron, which are multi-sided figures.

In a popularized presentation of their work, University of Oslo mathematician Arne B. Sletsjoe used the Rubik’s Cube, a mechanical puzzle with six sides, each divided into smaller cubes of differing colors. Group theory would allow a mathematician to calculate the number and order of rotations needed to get of the each six sides to be a specific solid color.

"From a group theoretic point of view, this is not so complicated," Sletsjoe wrote. However, he conceded: "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 an evidence of the fact that theory is one thing, to put it into practice is quite another."

Thomas was born in Ottawa, Kansas, graduated from Yale University in 1955 and 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 23 years teaching at the University of Cambridge. He now lives in Florida.

Tits was born near Brussels, Belgium. He was admitted to the Free University of Brussels at age 14, and received his doctorate at the age of 20.

He also taught there, and at the University of Bonn, Germany, in 1964, before he accepted the chair of group theory in the College de France 1973, a post he held until he retired in 2000.

Last year’s prize went to Indian-born New York University professor Srinivasa S. R. Varadhan.


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