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YU Alumnus Dr. Hillel Furstenberg Wins the Abel Prize, the “Math Nobel”

Dr. Hillel Furstenberg ’51YUHS, ’55YC of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is one of two mathematicians who have been awarded this year’s Abel Prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics.

Hillel Furstenberg of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Credit...Yosef Adest

He shares the prize with another trailblazing mathematician, Dr. Gregory Margulis of Yale University, “for pioneering the use of methods from probability and dynamics in group theory, number theory and combinatorics.”

The Abel Prize is named after Niels Henrik Abel, a Norwegian mathematician, and is given annually to highlight important advances in mathematics.

Dr. Furstenberg is the first Israeli to win this most prestigious award, considered the equivalent of a Nobel prize.

Dr. Hans Munthe-Kaas, chair of the Abel Prize committee, noted that “Furstenberg and Margulis brought down the traditional wall between pure and applied mathematics and opened up a wealth of new results … with applications to communication technology and computer science.” Dr. Francois Labourie, a mathematician at the University of Cote d’Azur in France who served on the selection committee, went on to note that Furstenberg and Margulis showed how methods of probability could solve abstract problems, which was “really a revolution at the time.”

Dr. Furstenberg reacted with disbelief when he received the phone call informing him that he had won.

“I had known about the prestige of the Abel Prize and knew the list of former laureates,” he told an interviewer during the announcement. “I simply felt that these are people of a certain league, and I was not in that league.” Dr. Furstenberg went on to explain that “like any mathematician, I follow my nose and look for what seems to be very interesting.”

At age 84, Dr. Furstenberg is a Kristallnacht survivor, born in Berlin in 1935. His family emigrated to England in 1939 and then, in 1941, moved to the United States, settling in New York City’s Washington Heights where he attended the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boys and then Yeshiva College.

As an undergraduate, he developed a reputation as a promising mathematician and began to publish academic papers. “Note on one type of indeterminate form” (1953) and “On the infinitude of primes” (1955) both appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly, the latter giving a topological proof of Euclid’s famous theorem that there are infinitely many primes. Because of the depth of knowledge that his early undergraduate work exhibited, rumors began to circulate that “Furstenberg” wasn’t an individual but rather a pseudonym for a group of mathematicians.

Furstenberg has described his time at YU “as an experience I can only wish I could replicate for others. To me, as undoubtedly to many who attended YC in the early 50s, the subject of mathematics was identified with one remarkable individual, Professor Jekuthiel Ginsburg. It is hard to imagine a professional career that owes more to one individual and to one institution than my own career owes to Jekuthiel Ginsburg and Yeshiva University. Over and beyond the mathematics, I learned, I experienced the love of mathematics blended with human kindness.”

After receiving his BA and MS from Yeshiva University and PhD from Princeton University, Furstenberg taught at several leading universities, including Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Minnesota. In 1965, he made aliya [emigration to Israel] with his wife, Rochelle, where he joined the Hebrew University’s Einstein Institute of Mathematics. He won the Israel Prize in 1993, regarded as the top honor in Israel, and the Wolf Prize in mathematics in 2007.

Dr. Marian Gidea, chair of the mathematics department at Stern College for Women, has noted that Dr. Furstenberg’s monumental work in mathematics, which many YU undergraduates study today, has built bridges between many different areas, including dynamical systems, topology, probability and number theory. “His ability to combine ideas from diverse fields has been demonstrated since his undergraduate years at Yeshiva University. His mathematical legacy further motivates our faculty and students to continue the strong tradition in mathematical physics at Yeshiva University,” said Dr. Gidea.

Hillel Furstenberg (center) with fellow mathematicians at YU when he visited the campus in 2017

For Dr. Edward Berliner, dean of science management and clinical professor of physics at Yeshiva University, “we celebrate with an abundance of pride Dr. Furstenberg’s great accomplishment in attaining the highest professional acknowledgement in mathematics. Not only is Dr. Furstenberg a proud graduate of both Yeshiva University High School and Yeshiva College, but he is also a proud Jew and Israeli; in all these aspects, he is a role model for all our students. To this day, Yeshiva University’s core mission in STEM is to follow in his footsteps by encouraging and supporting those of our undergraduates engaged in advanced research and publishing in prestigious journals.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters will postpone the Abel Prize award ceremony to a yet unannounced date in 2021.