Peter D. Lax' speech in the University Aula

- Norway is a small country but a giant in mathematics. I thank the Norwegian people for creating the Abel Prize, which gives visibility to mathematics that the subject sorely needs, said Peter D. Lax in his acceptance speech to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
Here is the complete speech: Your Majesties, Members of the Norwegian Academy, guests, colleagues, and friends. I am highly flattered, and also embarrassed by what has been said here, a natural reaction to being praised and rewarded extravagantly for doing merely what has given me so much pleasure. Norway is a small country but a giant in mathematics. I thank the Norwegian people for creating the Abel Prize, which gives visibility to mathematics that the subject sorely needs. Mathematics is spoken and written in a language of its own, closed to the general public. Occasions like this are a window of opportunity to give the public a glimpse of the power, importance, and sweep of mathematics. Traditionally mathematics is divided into two kinds: pure and applied. The relation of the two is delicate. The great applied mathematician Joe Keller's definition is: pure mathematics is a branch of applied mathematics. He meant that mathematics, beginning with Newton, was originally concerned with answering question in physics, it is only later that the tools and concepts used were elaborated into theories that took on lives of their own. It was remarked by von Neumann that after a while abstract mathematics needs to be invigorated by the injections of new empirical material, like a new scientific theory, new experimental facts, or numerical studies. Numerical studies by Kruskal and Zabusky revealed the clean interaction of solitary wave solutions of the Korteweg-de Vries equation; this observation blossomed into a grand theory of completely integrable systems. Other uses of computing concern the public directly. The design of fast, efficient modern aircraft depends on the ability to calculate the airflow around it in a short time, so the shape can be optimized. According to Tony Jameson, the wind tunnel tests of the final design are no better predictors of the plane's performance than the numerical calculations. Medical imaging, like CT scan, nuclear magnetic resonance, and others, save many lives. The general public does not realize how much sophisticated mathematics is needed to convert physical measurements into an image, nor that a mathematical improvement can pay off in improved, more detailed pictures. All my life I have been fortunate to be helped and supported by many people; this is the time to thank them. I have been helped immensely in my youth by the Hungarian network of mathematicians on the lookout for talented youngsters, and nurturing them. I owe a great deal to my uncle Albert Korodie, to Paul Turan, Paul Erdos, Denes Konig, and particularly to Rose Peter, a brilliant teacher. The USA gave refuge to my family in 1941, saving us from being murdered by Nazis, and offered unlimited opportunities. I owe my mathematical outlook to Richard Courant, and his Institute, to my teachers Friedrichs, Fritz John, and fellow students Louis Nirenberg, Cathleen Morawetz, Joe Keller, Harold Grad, Avron Douglis. There theory and applications blended into each other, this diversity is maintained do to this day. A number of Norwegian mathematicians who later became leaders in their field, received their training at the Courant Institute. I was fortunate to collaborate for 30 years with Ralph Phillips. We discovered a new way of looking at scattering theory, which led us, following Fadeev and Pavlov, into the mysteries of Eisenstein series. I owe thanks to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory; it is there that I had the first experience of working as a part of a team of scientists with different expertise and outlook. I saw there the overwhelming importance of computation for science and the role that mathematics plays in it. Von Neumann was the main champion in every way of computational science. Mathematicians of the world form one community. During the darkest days of the cold war American and Soviet mathematicians maintained most cordial relations. Heartfelt thanks and the best wishes for all.

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Telephone: + 47 22 84 15 00
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Web editor: Anne-Marie Astad
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