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Her Work With Bubbles Revolutionized Math

EDITORIAL The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Karen Uhlenbeck, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, is credited with laying the foundation for some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics in the last 40 years.

Dallas

For those of us who still take pride in the "B" received in honors math in high school, Karen Uhlenbeck brings us back down to earth. Quickly.

If Uhlenbeck's name is unfamiliar, that's perhaps expected. But rest assured she is famous in the rarefied world of advanced mathematics.  She was this year's recipient of the Abel Prize, a prestigious math award bestowed annually since 2003 by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and loosely patterned after the Nobel Prize.

For her revolutionary accomplishments in mathematics and her lasting impact on many fields of research, Uhlenbeck, 77, is a finalist for 2019 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.

Uhlenbeck, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin since her retirement in 2014, is credited with laying the foundation for some of the most dramatic advances in mathematics in the last 40 years. And, if brilliance isn't enough, she seems to have accomplished these breakthroughs in areas that stump others, prompting a fellow mathematician to note admiringly that she "wanders around and finds new things that nobody has found before."

Like a new perspective on soap bubbles. That's right bubbles. As hard as it might be to imagine, researchers have written thousands of papers on bubbles since the late 1800s. The reason is that bubbles provide opportunities to study scientific concepts such as elasticity, surface tension, chemistry, light and even geometry.

The bubble -- which is little more than a thin layer of a liquid filled with air or gas -- is a mathematical problem solver. By observing the way the orbs react under certain conditions, researchers can adapt the findings to study everything from black holes in space, road design, technologies that permit ships to speed across an ocean and noninvasive delivery systems for medicines.

This is why fellow researchers say Uhlenbeck's work is so influential. She linked abstract mathematical concepts in a marriage of geometry and analysis, pioneering a new mathematical discipline called geometric analysis. And her other research contributed to advances in topological quantum field theory, integrable systems and gauge theory. We'll just pretend we know what those are.

Uhlenbeck also is a pioneer in gender rights in academia. She is the first woman to win the Abel Prize, and she made her mark as part of a generation of women whose advocacy and accomplishments chipped away in the 1960s at the glass ceiling in the male-dominated world of advanced mathematics.

In 1990, she became only the second woman ever to give a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians, some 58 years after the first, Emmy Noether, spoke in 1932. During an interview with The New Yorker, Uhlenbeck noted that had she been born five years earlier, "I could not have become a mathematician, because the disapproval would be so strong."

Uhlenbeck is a mathematical genius who has collected distinguished academic honors in the way the rest of us add apples to our shopping basket. Her amazing résumé includes a MacArthur Fellowship, election to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Medal of Science and honors from the American Mathematical Society.

An inspiration for a generation of female mathematicians and a difference-maker in the world of abstract mathematical thought, Uhlenbeck is a finalist for 2019 Texan of the Year.

___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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