The Biography of Niels Henrik Abel: The legacy of Abel

Scientists in Paris promptly expressed the hope that Abel’s collected works would be published, and in 1839, Oeuvres complètes, avec des notes et développements, edited by B.M. Holmboe, was published in Christiania. However, the Paris treatise, which had come to light in Paris in 1829, had disappeared again and was not included in Holmboe’s publication.

The Paris treatise was first printed in 1841, in the Paris Academy’s journal, and it has naturally been included in the big, two-volume edition, Oeuvres complètes de Niels Henrik Abel, (621 pages + 341 pages in quarto format) which was published in 1881, edited and commented on by Ludvig Sylow and Sophus Lie.

In the first plans for celebrating the Abel centenary in 1902, three main tasks were mentioned. First, there was to be a broad cultural commemoration in the capital of Kristiania – with local celebrations in the villages of Gjerstad and Froland. Second, efforts were to be made to erect a worthy monument to the genius, and third there was talk of establishing an international Abel prize. The first two tasks were carried out with pomp and circumstance. At the Abel festival in September 1902, a number of foreign mathematicians visited Kristiania and were awarded honorary doctorates. Poems and cantatas were written by Norway’s foremost artists, citizens threw parties, the students held a big torchlight parade, and the king held a banquet at the Royal Palace. Gustav Vigeland’s Abel monument was erected on the so-called Abelhaugen, a knoll on the Palace Grounds, though admittedly not until six years later in 1908. There had been talk of an Abel monument for over 20 years; the plans for an Abel prize were more recent, but that was a task that for various reasons had to be abandoned.

The mathematician, Sophus Lie, was one of the first eager proponents of establishing an Abel prize. One of the last things that Lie used his international prestige and extensive network of contacts to accomplish was to garner enough support to establish this prize. In 1898, the year before he died, he received support and a promise of financial contributions for the establishment of an Abel fund from most of the leading mathematical centres of Europe. The plans were to award an international Abel prize for an outstanding effort in pure mathematics every fifth year from this fund. Most of these contacts and promises of support were made to Lie personally, so when Lie passed away in February 1899, the efforts to establish the Abel fund were discontinued. There were not enough funds for it after the commemoration in 1902 and the work on the Abel monument.

However, king Oscar II of Sweden, who wholeheartedly supported and took part in the Abel celebration, was also attracted to the idea of a prize in Abel’s honour. During the festivities in 1902, he announced that he would like to have a big gold medal made that would bear Abel’s name and be awarded every fifth year to a first-rate work of mathematics. Under the direction of the Scientific Society of Christiania (currently the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters), efforts were made to draw up statutes and rules for the gold medal for the Abel prize right up until the dissolution of the union (between Sweden and Norway) in June 1905 put an end to all further plans.

The establishment of an Abel fund, which could be the basis for an Abel prize, does not seem to have been seriously considered again throughout the entire 20th century. The establishment of this international mathematics prize has first become a reality on the bicentenary celebration of Abel’s birth.

Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi
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The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
Drammensveien 78
N-0271 Oslo, Norway
Telephone: + 47 22 84 15 00
Fax: + 47 22 12 10 99
E-mail: abelprisen@dnva.no
Web editor: Anne-Marie Astad
Design and technical solutions: Ravn Webveveriet AS