The past Tuesday came the announcement that the Abel prize for 2011 is awarded to John Willard (Jack) Milnor, one of the most diverse and elegant mathematicians of all times, «for pioneering discoveries in topology, geometry and algebra». Some of his wonderful achievements are explained at various detail on the Prize web page, e.g., in the popular exposition by Tim Gowers. Yet for the majority of “rank and file” mathematicians Milnor is the author of incredibly clearly written expository books. The legendary “Morse Theory” with its 160 small pages serves as an introduction to singularity theory, Riemannian geometry, calculus of variations and differential topology. The book “Topology from the differential viewpoint” is a must read for any analyst or geometer… it is impossible to believe that these books were written by a mature mathematician aged less than 35 and which remain the standard reference for half a century!
Even on the level of the Guinness book of records one can mention a few surprising facts about Milnor:
- he is one of the few mathematicians whose first recorded publication at age 18+ is in the “Annals of Mathematics”, probably the most competitive journal;
- he is the author of one of the shortest mathematical papers solving a long-standing problem, – a “pure serendipity”, as he himself describes this half-page article proving that one can not always hear the shape of 16-dimensional drum.
Among less known achievements of John Milnor are his three papers on axiomatic approach to the game theory, written between 1951 and 1955. Although he never returned to this area again, the encyclopedic treatise of Luce and Raiffa “Games and Decisions” devotes several dozens of pages describing and discussing the works of 20-years-old maître.
Thus you might imagine the fascination with which a recent student would meet such a mountainous figure…
Yet in the real world Jack is one of the most modest, soft-speaking and delicate people.
Excellent decision, dear Abel Prize committee members! Congratulations and admiration, dear Jack! Till 120 at the same pace!