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Indian American wins Math's top honor

April 11, 2007 01:33 IST

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded the prestigious Abel Prize for 2007 to Srinivasa S R Varadhan, professor of mathematics at New York University.

The Abel Prize is considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics, and is worth $920,000.

"I consider it a great honor and consider myself lucky to some extent to be chosen to receive it," Varadhan, 67, a native of Chennai who came to the United States in the 1960s, told India Abroad, the newspaper that rediff.com owns in the United States.

"There are many more people worthy of such awards than there are awards. It is hard to compare persons working in different areas."

The Abel Prize was established in 2001 to honor the memory of mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, who died in 1829 at the age of 26. The award will be presented at a ceremony in Oslo in May.

The Academy selected Varadhan, among other things, for his fundamental contributions to the probability theory and a theory of large statistical deviations from the norm.

The probability theory is the mathematical tool for analyzing situations governed by chance. The law of large numbers, discovered by Jacob Bernoulli in the 18th century, shows that the average outcome of a long sequence of coin tosses is usually close to the expected value. Yet the unexpected happens, and the question is, how? The theory of large deviations studies the occurrence of rare events.

This subject has concrete applications to fields as diverse as physics, biology, economics, statistics, computer science and engineering.

Varadhan's theory of large deviations provides a unifying and efficient method to clarify a rich variety of phenomena, in fields as diverse as quantum field theory, statistical physics, population dynamics, econometrics and finance, and traffic engineering, the Abel Committee noted in its citation.

It has also greatly expanded the ability to use computers to simulate and analyse the occurrence of rare events. Over the last four decades, the theory of large deviations has become a cornerstone of modern probability, both pure and applied, the Committee said.

'Varadhan's work has great conceptual strength and ageless beauty. His ideas have been hugely influential and will continue to stimulate further research for a long time,' the Committee announced.

When asked how his work has changed the scientific world, Varadhan -- Frank J Gould Professor of Science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University -- told India Abroad, "I am a mathematician by training and my work has been mostly on the theoretical foundations and methodology rather than application to specific problems in science. One general area of applications that I have worked on is statistical physics, in particular the study of complex systems and how they evolve towards equilibrium."

Historically, the probability theory started as an attempt to understand simple games of chance, often with betting involved. In such games, there is a finite number of possible outcomes, and the difficulty lies in finding the probability of each one.

Varadhan has also made key contributions in several other areas of probability.

'His is a prolific scientist with deep insights and an impressive array of technical tools, and he is very highly regarded and esteemed in the probability community. This does not only have to do with his results, but also his style -- listening to a lecture by Varadhan, one is not only exposed to the best and most recent results in the subject, but one is also introduced to a way of thinking,' Professor Tom Louis Lindstrom said.

George Joseph in New York