by UT News, The University of Texas, Austin
Dr. Karen K. Uhlenbeck, a professor of mathematics at The University of Texas at Austin, has been awarded the National Medal of Science. She is one of 12 renowned American scientists and engineers to receive the honor, which will be presented at an awards dinner scheduled for Friday (Dec. 1) in Washington, D.C.
In announcing the Year 2000 National Medal of Science winners, President Bill Clinton paid tribute to this group of scientific leaders, who have set new directions in social policy, neuroscience, biology, chemistry, bioengineering, mathematics, physics and earth and environmental sciences.
“These exceptional scientists and engineers have transformed our world and enhanced our daily lives,” President Clinton said. “Their imagination and ingenuity will continue to inspire future generations of American scientists to remain at the cutting edge of scientific discovery and technological innovation.”
Uhlenbeck, who holds the Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair in Mathematics, conducts research in geometry and partial differential equations and studies applications of geometry to large-scale problems in high-energy physics. She also is interested in the ways that new complex mathematical concepts find uses in research in other areas of science, such as ecology, molecular biology and the structure of materials.
“I am grateful to both the mathematics department of The University of Texas and to the generous benefactors who endowed the Regents Chair. With this support and money, I have been able to accomplish quite a lot, both in the subject of mathematics and in supporting and encouraging the next generation of mathematicians,” Uhlenbeck said.
The National Medal of Science is sometimes referred to as America’s Nobel Prize. Uhlenbeck received her medal for her pioneering contributions to global analysis and gauge theory that resulted in advances in mathematical physics and the theory of partial differential equations. Spokesmen for the National Science Foundation, which administers the National Medals of Science for the White House, said Uhlenbeck stands out as one of the founders of geometry based on analytical methods.
The NSF also cited her leadership as a mentor for women and minorities in mathematics education. She and her coworker,, are the organizers of a mentoring program for women mathematicians, which is held at the Institute for Advanced Study each spring.
“I feel very humble, as many greater scientists have received this award. I hope that my acceptance will serve as encouragement to young women scientists and mathematicians,” Uhlenbeck said. Uhlenbeck said it is not easy to describe her work in geometry in non-technical language, a problem she has in common with most research mathematicians.
“Mathematics is a discipline which takes ideas from all branches of science and extends, constructs and develops further these ideas into a body of results that we usually refer to as theorems. These ideas can be used independently as a language to describe new processes that have nothing to do with the original source,” she explained. “For example, I study bubbles, that originate with soap bubbles. But I use them in abstract contexts, where they can be used to investigate the shape of space or to study the structure of materials.
“A basic idea in high energy physics is part of the description of color and charm (gauge theory). I study this abstractly, and have found ways to use this in the study of waves and magnetic materials. Other mathematicians have used my work in the study of space-time and in string theory,” she said.
Uhlenbeck said the group she works with at UT Austin “specializes in looking for new ideas in mathematics in the work of other sciences. While our primary work is theoretical physics, we have a member who thinks about how DNA coils. I have been fascinated by a number of equations I learned about from physicists who study plasma and fluid flow.” She added that “in common with all basic researchers, mathematicians do not expect immediate applications, although we do expect the ideas we develop to be around for centuries. The kinds of mathematics that are used in applications have become diverse, and we don’t try hard to second guess what will be useful next year.”
Uhlenbeck, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1983, has taught at UT Austin since 1987. She was born in Cleveland and grew up in New Jersey. She graduated from the University of Michigan and earned her Ph.D. at Brandeis University, with a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. Ten of the 12 science medallists this year, including Uhlenbeck, received NSF support for portions of their academic or research careers.
She was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Sloan Fellow and an Albert Einstein Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. She is a recipient of the Common Wealth Award for Science and Invention, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science. Uhlenbeck is co-author of Instantons and Four-Manifold Topology, published in 1983, and her work has contributed to the discovery of a new four-dimensional space-time. She is a member of the Texas Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics.