Professor Dennis Parnell Sullivan Awarded the 2022 Abel Prize for Mathematics

March 23, 2022

The prize is equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics.

Distinguished Professor Dennis Parnell Sullivan (photo credit: Alex Irklievski)
Distinguished Professor Dennis Sullivan (photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Dennis Parnell Sullivan, Albert Einstein Chair in Science and Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Mathematics at Stony Brook University, is the recipient of the 2022 Abel Prize for Mathematics.The prize – the highest worldwide for mathematics – is awarded to Sullivan by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for his groundbreaking contributions to topology in its broadest sense, and in particular its algebraic, geometric and dynamical aspects. As a part of the award, he will receive 7.5 million Norwegian kroner (nearly $860,000 US) funded by the Norwegian government.

I am extremely honored and was delightfully surprised to learn that I will receive the Abel Prize,” said Sullivan. “Mathematics is truly a passion that provides a never-ending stream of curiosities and puzzles, and I’ve been privileged to spend each day of my professional life in the company of the many talented colleagues and students who have conspired with me to tackle these challenges so that we might better understand the rules of the universe. This award is as much a testament to their hard work and insights as it is a gift to me.”

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, on behalf of the Ministry of Education, awards the Abel Prize, and it will be officially presented by His Majesty King Harald at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway on May 24.

CELEBRATING ABEL PRIZE WINNER PROFESSOR DENNIS SULLIVAN

Throughout his decades-long career as a mathematician, Sullivan has found deep connections between many areas of mathematics. One of his most important breakthroughs includes a new way of understanding rational homotopy theory, a subfield of algebraic topology. Topology has been invaluable throughout mathematics and beyond, with significant applications in fields ranging from physics to economics to data science.

“The Abel Prize is a global acknowledgement for exceptionally accomplished mathematicians, something that Professor Sullivan has proven himself to be time and again throughout his extraordinary career,” said CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. “His excitement and devotion to the field of mathematics are matched by his commitment to teaching and mentoring students at a public university recognized as a national leader of social mobility. We congratulate him on this remarkable and historic achievement.”

“Professor Dennis Sullivan has been an esteemed member of the Graduate Center’s faculty for more than 40 years. His pioneering discoveries in topology and dynamical systems, along with his mentorship of students, have been great gifts to mathematicians world-wide,” said Robin L. Garrell, president of the CUNY Graduate Center. “The Abel Prize is a well-earned recognition of his extraordinary achievements and impact. He has not only solved problems, but he has also opened new avenues of research that scholars will explore for years to come.”

“This prize honors brilliant mathematicians who inspire curiosity and drive imagination. Who better to receive this tremendous recognition than distinguished professor Dennis Sullivan,” said Maurie McInnis, president of Stony Brook University. “Professor Sullivan has made outstanding scientific contributions to the field of mathematics, and we are very proud of the impact he has made throughout his illustrious career, especially on those he has mentored. We are so fortunate to have him among our esteemed colleagues, and all of Stony Brook joins me in offering congratulations for receiving such a prestigious prize.”

In the late 1970s, Sullivan began to work on problems in dynamical systems – the study of a point moving in a geometrical space – a field usually considered far removed from algebraic topology. The ability of computers to iterate functions beyond what was humanly possible had created an explosion of interest in this field, known popularly as “chaos theory,” since many of the dynamical systems exhibited chaotic behavior. 

“We are overjoyed that our colleague, friend and mentor Dennis Sullivan will be honored with this award,” said Ara Basmajian, executive officer and professor of Mathematics at the CUNY Graduate Center. “His fresh view of complex problems and his ability to strip them to their bare essentials has led to brilliant insights and contributions to mathematics. His accomplishments in topology, dynamical systems, the Feigenbaum conjecture and fluid dynamics are a testament to the breadth and depth of his work. In his forty-plus years as Einstein Chair with the Graduate Center, Dennis has propelled, inspired and enriched those around him in ways that cannot be measured.”

Among Sullivan’s significant achievements is his solving of the 60-year-old Adams conjecture, proving that rational maps have no wandering domains. His insistent probing for fundamental understanding and his capacity to see analogues between diverse areas of mathematics and build bridges between them, has forever changed the field.

In 1999 Sullivan and Moira Chas, associate professor of Mathematics at Stony Brook, discovered a new invariant for a manifold based on loops, creating the field of string topology, an area that has grown rapidly in recent years.

“Dennis P. Sullivan has repeatedly changed the landscape of topology by introducing new concepts, proving landmark theorems, answering old conjectures and formulating new problems that have driven the field forwards,” said Hans Munthe-Kaas, chair of the international Abel prize committee. “Sullivan has moved from area to area, seemingly effortlessly, using algebraic, analytic and geometric ideas like a true virtuoso.”

Sullivan received his PhD in 1966 from Princeton University. That same year, he was awarded a NATO Fellowship at Warwick University in England after which he earned a Miller Fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley (1967-69), and went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as The Sloan Fellow of Mathematics (1969–73).

Sullivan spent the 1973-74 academic year in France as professeur associé at the University of Paris-Orsay and became in 1974 a permanent professor at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques. In 1981 he was appointed to the Albert Einstein Chair at the CUNY Graduate Center, working jointly with the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques until 1996. He joined the faculty of the Department of Mathematics at Stony Brook University in 1996, and he remains on the faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center.

He was elected member of the US National Academy of Sciences (1983), corresponding member of the Brazilian National Academy of Sciences (1983), member of the New York Academy of Sciences (1984), fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), corresponding member of the Irish Royal Society (2012), Honorary member of the London Mathematical Society (2013) and served as vice-president (1990-93) of the American Mathematical Society.

A recipient of numerous awards, Sullivan received the Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry (1970), the Elie Cartan Prize in Geometry (1981), the King Faisal International Prize for Science (1994), the Gold Medal of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (1996), the US National Medal of Science (2004), the AMS Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2006) and the Wolf Prize in Mathematics (2010).

The Abel Prize is named after Niels Henrik Abel, Norway’s greatest mathematician who left lasting marks on the mathematical world. His mathematics have served as a base for a number of major technological breakthroughs, including the development of the internet.  The Abel Prize was established by the Norwegian Parliament (The Storting) in 2002, on the 200th anniversary of Abel’s birth. The choice of the Abel laureate is based on the recommendation of the Abel Committee, which is composed of five internationally recognized mathematicians.

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