Yale News

For the first time in University history, a Yale mathematician won the prestigious Abel Prize in Mathematics, the Nobel Prize’s math-world equivalent. 

The recipient, math professor Gregory “Grisha” Margulis won the award “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics,” according to the website of Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Margulis and co-recipient Hillel Furstenberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will share the Norwegian government’s cash prize of 7.5 million Norwegian kroner, which amounts to over $700,000. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the May 19 laureate ceremony was cancelled and the king of Norway will most likely present Margulis with his award in the 2021 ceremony. 

“It’s a great honor, since this prize is considered to be the most prestigious award in mathematics, not in terms of the monetary award, but in how it was conceived,” Margulis, who joined Yale faculty in 1991, told the News in a phone call. “I started studying mathematics at an early age. I grew up in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, and I participated in mathematical olympiads and in so-called mathematical circles, so I became a mathematician. I have been at Yale for more than 28years. Now I am retired, but the [Yale] Department of Mathematics has provided a very good atmosphere, and I have felt supported by the University.”

In emails to the News, Margulis’ colleagues expressed their congratulations and admiration for his accomplishments.

Department Chair Yair Minsky told the News that the Yale Department of Mathematics “is extremely excited about this prize” because it recognizes Margulis’ lifetime achievements.

“This is a well-deserved validation of Professor Margulis’s stature in Mathematics as a whole,” Minsky wrote. “We are all very proud of him.”

Professor Hee Oh, Margulis’ former doctoral student, wrote to the News that she admires “[Margulis’] work and style” because there is “no barrier between areas in his work.” Instead, she wrote, “there is just mathematics.” Oh commented that Margulis is only the fifth person to receive all three prestigious prizes — the Fields, Wolf and Abel. 

In 1978, Margulis won the Fields Medal for his Arithmeticity Theorem and Superrigidity Theorem. According to his faculty retirement tribute, he was unable to travel to Helsinki, Finland to accept the prize “because of “anti-Semitism.” And in 2005, Margulis received the Wolf Prize for his “monumental contributions to algebra, in particular to the theory of lattices in semi-simple Lie groups, and striking applications of this to ergodic theory, representation theory, number theory, combinatorics and measure theory,” according to the Wolf Foundation’s website.

According to Oh, Margulis used unexpected areas and methods to understand deep classical problems in number theory and geometry. This resulted in a new area of mathematics called “homogeneous dynamics,” she explained. She described how the area of homogeneous dynamics “studies long term behavior of flows in spaces of finite volume with lots of symmetries.”

Professor Richard Beals wrote in an email that Margulis’ accomplishments show that the Yale Mathematics Department can attract and retain a person of that caliber. He takes pride in having been a member of the department and a colleague of Grisha, Beals said.

In his decades-long mathematics career, Margulis also won the Lobachevsky Prize, the Wolf Prize and the Fields Medal. Margulis, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Fields Institute and the American Mathematical Society, was also the recipient of the Medal of the College de France, a Humboldt Research Award and the Dobrushin International Prize.