Half a century ago, the American Karen Uhlenbeck, at that time a young and promising mathematician, began looking for a job, after two brief temporary jobs as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Berkeley. "They told me that no one hired women, because women should be at home and have babies," remembered in a book in 1997. Today, the Academy of Sciences and Letters of Norway has decided to grant Uhlenbeck the Abel 2019 Prize, endowed with about 600,000 euros and considered the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
"I'm mathematical. Mathematicians do exotic research, so it is difficult to describe exactly what I do in simple terms, "the scientist acknowledged in the same book. Uhlenbeck, born in Cleveland 76 years ago, has worked with partial differential equations, originally developed by the need to describe phenomena such as electromagnetism, but now used in many contexts, such as the study of the shapes of space in various dimensions .
"They told me that no one hired women, because women should be at home and have babies," Uhlenbeck recalls of his youth
American mathematics is the first woman to receive the Abel Prize, created in 2002 to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel. Other 19 men they have won the award since then. Already in 1988, Uhlenbeck denounced that explicit discrimination was not the only obstacle in his discipline. "One of the most serious problems that women have is to get used to the idea that there is a subtle lack of acceptance towards them and that they have to act accordingly," he warned. "I can not think of a mathematical woman for whom life has been easy, heroic efforts tend to be the norm," he explained.
The maiden name of the mathematician is Karen Keskulla, but she kept the name of her first husband, the American biochemist Olke Uhlenbeck, who left other traces. "The parents of my first husband were old European intellectuals and my father-in-law was a famous physicist [el holandés George Uhlenbeck]. They were very influential in my life. They had an attitude towards life different from that of the Americans. I remember my mother-in-law reading Proust in French and giving me the English version, "Uhlenbeck has written. "My in-laws valued the intellectual world in a way that my parents did not: my parents valued intellectual things, but believed that making money was more important."
The mathematician Daniel Peralta stresses that Uhlenbeck's work has been essential to understand the minimum surfaces, such as those formed by soap bubbles, when considering many dimensions of space. "From four dimensions, classical techniques fail and singularities arise," says Peralta, of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), in Madrid. "The techniques developed by Uhlenbeck are in the toolbox of any geometer. It's a fabulous winner ", celebrates Alberto Enciso, also from ICMAT.
"The recognition of Uhlenbeck's achievements should have been infinitely greater, since his work has led to some of the most spectacular advances in mathematics of the last 40 years," physicist Jim Al-Khalili, a member of the Royal Society.