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U.S. Mathematician Is The First Woman To Win Abel Prize

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Do not try telling Karen Uhlenbeck that math is a subject just for boys.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Uhlenbeck is a mathematician. And this week, she became the recipient of the Abel Prize.

MARTIN: The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters gives this award. It's the closest thing there is to a Nobel Prize for mathematics. It has been awarded since 2003, and Uhlenbeck is the first woman to receive it.

KAREN UHLENBECK: I'm really, timewise, in the first generation of women who could actually become mathematicians and obtain academic positions and have a regular life in mathematics. And I'm in the first generation of women who could do this, so I feel very lucky.

MARTIN: Here's a layman's description of some of Uhlenbeck's work. She's focused on what's called the minimal surfaces of soap bubbles. She used her study to help pioneer a field known as geometric analysis.

INSKEEP: If that all sounds a little hard to follow, well, that's the point. She once said, I find that I am bored with anything I understand. Having come to understand the problems that she attacks, she only wishes she could better explain something about math.

UHLENBECK: Ah, that it's beautiful - I wish I could get that across, but I'm not very good at it.

INSKEEP: The King of Norway presents the prize to Karen Uhlenbeck in May.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.