March 24, 2021

Institute’s Avi Wigderson Wins Abel Prize For Pioneering Math-Computer Connections

ABEL PRIZE WINNER: Avi Wigderson, mathematician and computer scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), will receive the 2021 Abel Prize jointly with Hungarian mathematician Laszlo Lovasz, a former visiting professor at IAS, “for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, and their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics.”  (Dan Komoda/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA)

By Donald Gilpin

Avi Wigderson, a mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton since 1999 and leader of their computer science and discrete mathematics program, has been awarded the 2021 Abel Prize, widely regarded as equivalent to the Nobel Prize.

“I am thrilled that the mathematics community has recognized with this prize the entire field of the theory of computation, which has been my academic and social home for the past four decades,” said Wigderson, who shares the 2021 Abel Prize with Hungarian mathematician Laszlo Lovasz, a former visiting professor at IAS.

The two pioneers in bringing applications of mathematics theory to the world of computer science were cited by the Abel committee “for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, and their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics.”

Wigderson, who received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1983, added, “I feel lucky to be part of this extremely dynamic community, whose fundamental goals have at the same time deep conceptual and intellectual meaning, scientific and practical motivations, with pure fun problems and brilliant collaborators to pursue them with.”

First presented in 2003 by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the award includes 7.5 million Norwegian kroner, about $880,000, divided between the two recipients. Of the 24 Abel Prize Laureates, 21 have been past or present IAS faculty and members. Wigderson is the ninth Abel Prize recipient linked to Princeton University, according to a press release from the University Office of Communications.

In an interview with the Abel Prize organization, Wigderson described his field of computational complexity theory as revolutionizing technology and science. His research has provided the basis for internet cryptography, or coding, and has helped to create the technology supporting Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

“The understanding that we are developing in the theory of computation is essential,” said Wigderson.“That’s the connection to science and why it would and is revolutionizing it. Similarly with industry, one has to remember that theory often predates industry technology.”

He continued, “Algorithms and computation take place not just in computers or between computer systems but actually everywhere in nature, in atoms, in matter, friends in Facebook, prices in an economy, bacteria in a cell, and neurons in the brain. Understanding and developing theories for these major scientific questions requires understanding the computations in these systems, the resources they take.”

IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf noted that Wigderson, “at the pinnacle of the theory of computation,” is carrying forward the groundbreaking ideas and work of John von Neumann, one of the IAS founders and initiator of the electronic computer project which resulted in the construction of the world’s first stored-program computer in the basement of Fuld Hall, and his colleague, the renowned logician Kurt Godel, who had a powerful impact on computer science trailblazer Alan Turing and the study of computability.

“His work shows how some of the deepest ideas in mathematics are intimately connected to a technology that is totally transforming our society,” said Dijkgraaf. “Avi is also a convincing advocate for computation as a powerful and promising perspective on all fields of knowledge. I am honored to congratulate Avi and Laszlo as this year’s Abel laureates and applaud their ongoing leadership and mentorship of young researchers in this fast-evolving field.”

Wigderson noted in his Abel interview, “Turing’s definition of algorithm led to the development of computers and the computer revolution that von Neumann here at the Institute was an important part of in the early days. The development of cryptography and secrets was really what enabled security systems and electronic commerce — and in fact the development of the internet.”

Among Wigderson’s noteworthy achievements are also the clarification of the role of randomness in computation and the development of understanding of zero-knowledge proofs, which allow an individual to verify the correctness of a statement without revealing any information about what that statement says. Zero-knowledge proofs are essential to blockchain technology and certifying digital currencies such as Bitcoin, and can also help to verify a person’s identity. 

Wigderson was born in Israel in 1956. He completed his B.Sc. in computer science at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, then came to Princeton University, where he completed his doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science in 1983. His dissertation was titled “Studies in Combinatorial Complexity.” He went on to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before returning to New Jersey to join the IAS in 1999.

Focused on the interaction between the fields of mathematics and theoretical computer science in his work on computational complexity theory and the power and limitations of algorithms, Wigderson has co-authored papers with more than 100 people. He has organized and led the Computer Science and Discrete Mathematics program since its establishment in 1999, supervising more than 100 post-doctoral and Ph.D. students.

“Digital innovations in industry, medicine, online communications, electronic commerce, and the economy are all underpinned by algorithmic and complexity theoretic research,” an IAS press release stated. “These ideas have also transformed scientific practice across the board, and this is only the beginning. Scholars like Wigderson and Lovasz will continue to pursue these foundational questions and their potential impact.”