The Abel Prize for mathematics was on Wednesday awarded to Israeli-American Hillel Furstenberg and Russian-born Gregory Margulis, both probability experts, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters said.
The pair were honoured “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics,” the Academy said in a statement.
Furstenberg, 84, is affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while Margulis, a decade younger, is at Yale University.
Furstenberg and Margulis invented so-called random walk techniques, or a path consisting of a succession of random steps. The study of random walks is a central branch of probability theory.
The pair used the technique “to investigate mathematical objects such as groups and graphs, and in so doing introduced probabilistic methods to solve many open problems,” the statement said.
Their work “has opened up a wealth of new results” in diverse areas of mathematics and “brought down the traditional wall between pure and applied mathematics”.
Born in Berlin, Furstenberg and his Jewish family fled Nazi Germany for the US just before the start of World War II.
After starting his career at top universities like Princeton and MIT, he left the United States for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1965 and stayed there until his retirement in 2003.
Margulis stood out as a math wiz early on. At age 16, he won the silver medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad, and 16 years later won the prestigious Fields Medal.
The Soviet authorities however did not allow him to travel to Helsinki to pick up the medal because of discrimination against his Jewish origin. Soviet academics were finally granted more freedom in 1979.
He went on to work at universities in Switzerland, France and the US, where he became a professor at Yale in 1991. In 2001, he was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.
Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Abel Prize award ceremony has been postponed indefinitely. It was originally scheduled for May 19.
Named after the 19th-century Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, the prize was established by the Oslo government in 2002 and first awarded a year later, to honour outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics, a discipline not included among the Nobel awards.
This year it comes with a cheque for 7.5 million kroner (US$711,000 or 648,000 euros).
Along with the Fields Medal, which is awarded every four years at the Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), it is one of the world’s most prestigious maths prizes.