UU History Corner: Karen Uhlenbeck

Karen Uhlenbeck had just attended the weekly service at her Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 17, 2019, when she learned she’d made history by becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Abel Prize for mathematics.

Since 2003, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded the Abel Prize—often compared to the Nobel Prize—to honor “outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics.” Uhlenbeck’s 2019 win recognizes “her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems” and “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry, and mathematical physics.” Uhlenbeck, a visitor in the School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and professor emerita of mathematics and Sid W. Richardson Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin, received about $700,000, presented by Norwegian King Harald V at an award ceremony in Oslo on May 21.

Since her win, Uhlenbeck has fielded interviews from a variety of media, including Scientific American, the New Yorker, and Glamour. “It’s a slice completely removed from my real life,” Uhlenbeck says. “I’ve been trying to hang on to the day to day.” She says attending her UU congregation has helped keep her grounded. “It takes me into another sphere of existence,” she says. “I meet people who are from different walks of life. I enjoy thinking about the same things that the people in the church discuss.”
Uhlenbeck says some fellow congregants only found out about her professional life because of the Abel Prize. “My husband is quite deaf, so we sit up close in church [to] see people talking. I often sketch. [Some people] knew me as the person who sketched in church, but they didn’t have any idea that I was a mathematician,” she laughs.

Her mother, an artist, taught her to draw as a child, but Uhlenbeck says she never considered studying art. Yet, she has found connections between drawing and mathematics. “The elementary problem of making a drawing is to fit the large-scale overall pattern in with the tiny details,” she explains. “This is something that has appeared in my mathematics. You have something happening on a large scale and then you have to look at it at a small scale, sort of look at it under a magnifying glass. This is the big problem in theoretical physics, how to fit quantum mechanics into general relativity. Quantum mechanics is really tiny scale, and general relativity is really large scale.”

Uhlenbeck’s mother also introduced her to the Unitarian church, back when she was about to start high school, but at the time “the intellectual life in academia” held more of an interest.
Fifteen years ago, Uhlenbeck found her way to Unitarian Universalism in Austin, Texas, when her husband became interested in their joining a small fellowship. Though she had always understood the intellectual attraction of the faith, “becoming part of a community” became important. “I also get perspectives that are very valuable to me on living.”

One such perspective came after listening to a recent guest minister at UU Princeton whose sermon focused on diversity in the church. He shared a story about a woman who left a UU congregation because she felt they expected her to be the representative black person. “She had wanted to go to the church because it was church,” Uhlenbeck says. “She didn’t see herself as the representative black person at all. I suddenly had this insight: I had not wanted to be the woman in mathematics. I had wanted to be a mathematician who just happened to be a woman.”

Despite women being underrepresented in mathematics during her studies and the start of her career, Uhlenbeck affirmed that she always had support for her work. “I started at NYU, which had a very good reputation for women. [Then] I married my first husband, who was studying in Boston. I transferred to Brandeis. If I had gone to Harvard or MIT, I would have met up with 60-year-old professors who had never had a woman student.” She says the Brandeis professors hadn’t taught women students either, but they were younger and “accepted me very quickly.”

Of course, there were struggles. Uhlenbeck wrote an essay about her professional life in the book Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants. On being a role model, she wrote, “what you really need to do is show students how imperfect people can be and still succeed. . . . It took me a long time to realize this in my own life.”

“I went through a bad patch myself,” she tells UU World, “and I thought of one professor. I had one female math professor in all my studies: Cathleen Morawetz at NYU, a mother of four, a very applied mathematician. I was critical of her teaching, her hairstyle, everything that a 20-year-old person can be of an older woman.” As she reached her professor’s age, she reflected that if “Cathleen Morawetz can do it, I can do it too. She was someone who was very respected, a wonderful mathematician. There was this sudden relief that I didn’t have to live up to all the stuff. I could be me.”

Uhlenbeck’s efforts to encourage other mathematicians include cofounding the Women and Mathematics Program at the Institute for Advanced Study, an annual program to “recruit and retain more women in mathematics.” This year’s program coincided with the Abel Prize ceremony in Oslo, and participants in Princeton watched a broadcast of Uhlenbeck’s acceptance of the award.

Reflecting on the recent excitement over the first images of a black hole, Uhlenbeck says: “When I was in graduate school and right after, I became quite interested in the geometry connection with general relativity. We, of course, knew about black holes because it’s a mathematical thing that appears immediately. It’s amazing that fifty-some years later, we’re looking at pictures. To me, it underscores the fact that I’ve lived through a lot of history.” She laughs, “There’s a lot of mathematics in all of this, so people should not dismiss mathematics as not being important!”