Nobel Prize in Mathematics

During this week, the 2019 Nobel Prize winners are announced. We can be sure that nobody will win the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The reason is simple. There is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics.

There are many urban legends regarding this. Most of them relate to an alleged love affair that Ms. Nobel had with a prominent mathematician. These stories conclude that Alfred Nobel did not want to award a prize for mathematics, since his wife’s lover is a leading candidate to win the prize. The most famous of this stories relates Ms. Nobel to the French mathematician Augustine Cauchy. Nice story, but Alfred Nobel was not married.

There is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics, but the Nobel Prize was awarded to mathematicians many times. Some of the most prominent winners were mathematicians John NashRobert Aumann and Kenneth Arrow, who all won the Nobel Prize of Economics. However, some will argue that the Nobel Prize in Economics is not a real Nobel Prize but a Nobel Prize. Oh well.

In addition, many mathematicians won the Nobel Prize in Physics, because in fact one cannot engage in high-level physics without proper mathematical education, and engaging in theoretical physics for themselves need to develop innovative mathematical tools.

My research has shown that four mathematicians have won Nobel Prizes that are not in Economics or Physics. Two won the Literature Prize, and two others won the Chemistry Prize. In this post I will review them and their work.

Four mathematicians who won the Nobel Prize. From left to right: Jose Echegaray (Literature, 1904), Bertrand Russell (Literature, 1950), Herbert Hauptman (Chemistry, 1985), John Pople (Chemistry, 1998).

The first mathematician to win the Nobel Prize was the Spanish Jose Echegaray. Echegaray was born in Madrid in 1832. He demonstrated his mathematical talent at a very young age, and was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Madrid at the age of 21. In addition to his work in mathematics, he devoted his time to research in economics and worked to promote Spain’s international trade. With the abolition of the Spanish monarchy in the revolution of 1868, he retired from his academic position and was appointed Minister of Finance and Education of the Spanish Government. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1874, he retired from political life and began a new career as a writer, producing a series of successful satirical plays presented throughout Europe at the end of the 19th century. These plays earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him in 1904. Had Echegaray’s mathematical skills been useful to him in his literary career? Maybe. Literature scholars praise the meticulous structure of his plays. More likely, he was a very talented man who succeeded in everything he has done.

Another mathematician won the Nobel Prize for Literature 46 years later. The prize was awarded to Bertrand Russell in 1950. The prize committee noted it was awarded to him for his writings, which are “a victory for human ideals and freedom of thought”. Among these writings are the Foundations of Geometry (1897), A Critical Review of Leibniz’s Philosophy (1900), The Foundations of Mathematics — the monumental work he wrote with Whitehead between 1910 and 1913, and Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919). All these books dealt with logic, along with his many other writings in many other fields. Bertrand Russell undoubtedly won the Nobel Prize for his mathematical work.

In 1985 another mathematician met with the King of Sweden. Herbert A. Hauptman , a mathematician who worked at the Institute for Medical Research in Buffalo, New York, shared the Nobel Prize with his fellow chemist Jerome Karl. Hauptman developed an algorithm that combined geometric and probabilistic methods to determine the molecular structure of materials using x-rays. This method, when applied in the 1980s by a computer, shortened the amount of time needed to determine the molecular structure of simple biological molecules from two years to two days, making it possible to determine the three-dimensional molecular structure of vitamins, hormones and antibiotic materials easily, to be used in the development of new drugs.

In 1998 another mathematician won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: John A. Pople . He won the Nobel Prize for the development of new computational methods in the field of quantum chemistry. Pople sought and found methods for solving Schrodinger equations, the fundamental equations of quantum theory. These equations were previously considered insoluble, except for a few simple special cases. The software he developed for the implementation of his methods bears the name “Gaussian”, and is now used as the basic work tool of any chemist.

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