Mathematics’ Highest Prize Awarded to Luis A. Caffarelli

March 22, 2023 • by Marc Airhart

He is the first Latin American mathematician to receive the award and the second since 2019 from UT Austin.

Luis Caffarelli in a collared shirt standing in an outdoor courtyard on the UT Austin campus

Luis Caffarelli. Photo credit: Nolan Zunk/University of Texas at Austin

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has named Luis A. Caffarelli, a professor of mathematics at The University of Texas at Austin, winner of the 2023 Abel Prize, considered the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics and one of the top international awards. Norway’s King Harald V will present the Abel Prize to Caffarelli at an award ceremony in Oslo on May 23. He is the first Latin American mathematician to receive the award.

“For more than a quarter century here at UT, Luis Caffarelli has introduced ingenious new techniques that show brilliant geometrical insight,” said Jay Hartzell, president of The University of Texas at Austin. “I can’t think of a worthier selection for the highest honor in mathematics. Changing the world starts with understanding the world, and Luis has helped to advance humanity’s understanding of some of the most formidable problems in all of mathematics. His academic family tree is part of his impact and story, too, as he has mentored dozens of stellar mathematical minds.”

Caffarelli, who holds the Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair in Mathematics #1 at UT Austin, has contributed extensively to our understanding of partial differential equations (PDEs) and free boundary problems. PDEs arise naturally as laws of nature, to describe phenomena as diverse as the flow of water, the shape of soap bubbles, the movement of electromagnetic waves and the growth of populations.

In an era of supercomputing, having effective models requires being able to simulate real-world phenomena with advanced understanding of the mathematics that drive them, so Caffarelli’s breakthroughs offer important potential applications across a range of domains, such as in economics, modeling fluctuations in stock prices, and in medicine and the energy industry, where they can inform understanding of dynamics related to the movement of blood through the body or of oil underground and in pipes.

Mathematical equations that describe the ever-shifting border of, for example, ice as it melts into a glass of water demonstrate one type of free-boundary problem, an area where Caffarelli’s impact is among the greatest. The surface of the ice theoretically becomes entirely covered in spiky bumps, called singularities, rarely observed in the real world but small, short-lived and uncommon, as Caffarelli’s equations confirmed.

“Luis is one of the most deserving mathematicians alive today and one of the best mathematicians working on partial differential equations in this century or the last,” said Thomas Chen, chair of the Department of Mathematics at UT Austin. “He has trained many people who have reached the top of mathematical excellence.”

The Abel Prize recognizes achievements in mathematics at any stage of a mathematician’s career, unlike the Fields Medal, another international prize in math given only to mathematicians younger than 40. (Former UT Austin mathematician Alessio Figalli, a 2018 Fields medalist, collaborated with Caffarelli and received recognition also for PDE advances made at UT Austin.) The Abel Prize comes with a monetary award of 7.5 million Norwegian kroner, or approximately $710,000.

A core member of the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and member of the National Academy of Sciences, Caffarelli has won many of his field’s top prizes and honors since joining UT Austin in 1997, including the Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Mathematics, the Wolf Prize and the Shaw Prize. He is married to Irene M. Gamba, a fellow internationally renowned Argentinian American mathematician, also at UT Austin.

This is the second time in five years—and the third time since it was established in 2003—that a UT Austin faculty member has received the Abel Prize. The late professor emeritus John Tate received the award in 2010, and professor emerita Karen Uhlenbeck won it in 2019. Fewer than two dozen institutions worldwide can claim even one Abel Prize laureate, and no other public university has two or more winners.