Rice University: A ‘quasi-juvenile delinquent’ at Rice rises to the top — again

Even now, Dennis Sullivan credits his good Rice University training for the career that led to his new Abel Prize.

It’s the second “Nobel Prize of mathematics” for Sullivan ’63, a professor at Stony Brook University and the City University of New York Graduate Center, joining his 2009 Wolf Prize in Mathematics. He was honored this year for “his groundbreaking contributions to topology in its broadest sense, and in particular its algebraic, geometric and dynamical aspects.”

The Abel, given by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, comes with a cash prize of about $850,000.

The Wolf Prize, considered Israel’s Nobel for “achievements in the interest of mankind,” and the Abel Prize are considered in the same league as the Nobel, since there is no Nobel for mathematics.

Sullivan, 81, noted in the New York Times that two Rice calculus professors turned him from a career in chemical engineering to a life in math the day they introduced him to topology. “This was not like mathematics I’d learned up to that point,” he told the Times. “It was much deeper.”

Back when he won the Wolf, Sullivan told Rice News those professors were Frank Jones, still the Noah Harding Professor of Mathematics at Rice, and the late Jim Douglas, later of Purdue University.

“These guys were real mathematicians,” Sullivan said at the time. “They were tough, but they knew what they were doing, and they were excited about the subject. I wasn’t so silly that I didn’t notice them. And they clamped down on me. I was kind of a quasi-juvenile delinquent, but they got my attention, and I thought, ‘This stuff’s pretty cool.’ By the end of the year I was doing OK.

“The fact that Rice had real mathematicians teaching a first-year undergraduate course was kind of amazing,” he said. “That’s not true everywhere. A lot of famous places have their big, famous professors, and they have graduate students doing a lot of the work. But at Rice, it was a real crucible. It was a real experience.”

Since earning a bachelor’s degree from Rice (which two daughters also attended) and a doctorate from Princeton University, Sullivan co-founded what’s known as the surgery method of classifying higher-dimensional manifolds and the field of rational homotopy theory. He was a recipient of Rice’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1988 and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush in 2006.

The Abel Prize will be presented at a May 24 ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

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