Institute for Advanced Study scholar wins top mathematics prize

Professor Avi Wigderson. Photo by Dan Komoda for the Institute for Advanced Study.

Avi Wigderson, a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has been named a recipient of the 2021 Abel Prize along with László Lovász, a former visiting professor at the Institute.

The award from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters is considered the top yearly prize in the field of mathematics. Lovász and Wigderson were cited by the Abel committee “for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, and their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics.” They will split about $880,000 in prize money.

Wigderson, the Herbert H. Maass Professor in the School of Mathematics, leads the Institute for Advanced Study’s program in computer science and discrete mathematics, which was established at the Institute in 1999 with Wigderson’s appointment to the permanent faculty. Over his career, Wigderson has made prolific contributions to the major areas of computational complexity theory, including randomized computation, algorithms and optimization, circuit complexity, proof complexity, quantum computation, cryptography, and the understanding of fundamental graph properties.

“Avi Wigderson stands, in the tradition of Gödel and von Neumann, at the pinnacle of the theory of computation,” stated Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study. “His work shows how some of the deepest ideas in mathematics are intimately connected to a technology that is totally transforming our society. Avi is also a convincing advocate for computation as a powerful and promising perspective on all fields of knowledge.” 

Wigderson’s main research area is computational complexity theory, which concerns itself with the power and limitations of algorithms. He has co-authored papers with more than 100 people, producing novel connections between mathematics and computer science. His investigations have advanced our understanding of questions including: Can creativity be automated? Can randomness speed up computation? Which distributed tasks can be computed privately and securely in adversarial environments? What are the power and limitations of communication and interaction?

Such theoretical questions have significant real-world implications. Wigderson’s contributions to the foundations of cryptography have led to the development of protocols as complex as playing a game of poker online without any physical means. His work on interactive proof systems has recently found its way to blockchain technology and digital currencies. Digital innovations in industry, medicine, online communications, electronic commerce, and the economy are all underpinned by algorithmic and complexity-theoretic research.
Prior to joining the Institute, Wigderson held academic appointments at the University of California, Berkeley, IBM Research in San Jose, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Princeton University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, the Levi L. Conant Prize, the Gödel Prize, and the Donald E. Knuth Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

“I am thrilled that the mathematics community has recognized with this prize the entire field of the theory of computation, which has been my academic and social home for the past four decades,” Wigderson said of the award. “I feel lucky to be part of this extremely dynamic community, whose fundamental goals have at the same time deep conceptual and intellectual meaning, scientific and practical motivations, with pure fun problems and brilliant collaborators to pursue them with.”

One Comment

  1. Also earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1983 from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

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