Emeritus Professor and Alum Receives “Nobel Prize” of Mathematics

Dr. Peter Lax
Dr. Peter Lax

[Originally web posted March 17, 2005]

Peter D. Lax, an emeritus professor at New York University’s esteemed Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and an alumnus of NYU who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees here, was today awarded the Abel Prize in mathematics by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for “his groundbreaking contributions to the theory and application of partial differential equations and to the computation of their solutions.” He is expected to receive the Abel Prize from His Majesty, King Harald V of Norway, in Oslo on May 24th. The honor is accompanied by a prize of $980,000.

Professor Lax received his bachelor’s degree in 1947 and his Ph.D. in 1949 from New York University. He became an assistant professor of mathematics at NYU in 1949, was director of the Courant Institute from 1972-1980, and was named an emeritus professor in 1999.

NYU President John Sexton said, “The entire New York University community is thrilled and proud to have the Abel Prize bestowed upon Peter Lax. He is a true ‘home-town hero’ – an alumnus with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from NYU, he then went on to devote his professional life to the University, making enormous contributions in mathematics and to the NYU community. It is this sort of dedication that exemplifies our motto, Perstare et Praestare – to persist and to excel. The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences is renowned for the superb scholars it attracts and their influence at the interface between mathematics and applications; this honor adds greatly to the luster of the Institute.” David McLaughlin, NYU’s Provost and former director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, said, “The choice of Peter Lax by the Abel Prize committee and its recognition of the impact and importance of his work is a well deserved honor. Peter has led mathematics at NYU for half a century, and we are delighted that his work and contributions have been so recognized.”

Charles Newman, the director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, said, “We are extraordinarily pleased at the awarding of this distinguished prize to Peter Lax, who – as student and colleague – has been at NYU and the Courant Institute for more than 60 years. He exemplifies the philosophy of the Institute that there are no real divisions between the applied and pure mathematical sciences. He’s a wonderful person and a cherished colleague, and we simply could not be happier for him.”

Professor Lax – who was named to the National Academy of Sciences in 1962 – is one of the most prominent mathematicians of the second-half of the 20th Century. He is the recipient of many honors, including the National Medal of Science (1986), the Wolf Prize (1987), the Chauvenet Prize (1974), the American Mathematical Society’s Steele Prize (1974), and the Norbert Weiner Prize (1975).

He was president of the American Mathematical Society from 1977-1980. He worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in 1945-6, and was a staff member at Los Alamos in 1950.

In awarding the prize, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters cited among his extraordinary scholarship the work Professor Lax did in the 1950s and 1960s laying the foundations for the modern theory of nonlinear equations for hyperbolic systems; his introduction of the widely used Lax-Friedrichs and Lax-Wendroff numerical schemes for computing solutions (which has been extraordinarily fruitful for practical applications, from weather prediction to airplane design); his development of the “Lax Equivalence Theorem,” a cornerstone of modern numerical analysis; and his work on “soliton” solutions, in which he developed a unifying concept for understanding them, rewriting the equations in terms of what are now called “Lax pairs”.

The Academy said, “Peter D. Lax has been described as the most versatile mathematician of his generation …Peter D. Lax stands out in joining together pure and applied mathematics, combining a deep understanding of analysis with an extraordinary capacity to find unifying concepts. He has had a profound influence, not only by his research, but also by his writing, his lifelong commitment to education and his generosity to younger mathematicians.”

New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village, was established in 1831 and is one of America’s leading research universities. It is one of the largest private universities, it has one of the largest contingents of international students, and it sends more students to study abroad than any other college or university in the U.S. Through its 14 schools and colleges, NYU conducts research and provides education in the arts and sciences, law, medicine, business, dentistry, education, nursing, the cinematic and dramatic arts, music, public administration, social work, and continuing and professional studies, among other areas.

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