A distinguished visiting UCSB professor received a mathematics prize on March 30 comparable to the Nobel Prize-at least in terms of the prize money.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters awarded the 2002 Abel Prize to Isadore Singer and his partner, British mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah. The two will share an award of approximately $875,000. The Academy recognized the pair “for their discovery and proof of the index theorem, bringing together topology, geometry and analysis, and their outstanding role in building new bridges between mathematics and theoretical physics.”

Xianzhe Dai, a UCSB mathematics professor teaching a course on the index theorem this quarter, said that the theorem is a way to count the number of solutions to differential equations in terms of topological quantities of the underlying space.

The Academy’s prize announcement described the theorem more simply: “A simple case is illustrated by a famous paradoxical etching by M.C. Escher, ‘Ascending and Descending,’ where the people, going uphill all the time, still manage to circle the castle courtyard. The index theorem would have told them this was impossible.”

Singer teaches a course at UCSB every Winter Quarter and is also an Institute Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It is very moving that Sir Michael and I have been recognized for the new insights in mathematics that broke barriers between different fields,” Singer said in a release. “One thing that this prize reinforces is how important mathematics is in science and engineering. One would never have expected the kind of applications that index theory brings – even 20 years ago.”

Dai said that he grew up admiring Singer and the index theorem.

“It’s a remarkably elegant formula that applies everywhere,” Dai said.