Abel Prize 2021 awarded for enriching link between mathematics and computer science

László Lovász and Avi Wigderson have been awarded for helping develop the field of computational complexity that mainly studies the speed and efficiency of computer algorithms

March 19, 2021 by Sandipan Talukdar
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This year’s Abel Prize has been awarded to two researchers — László Lovász belonging to the Alfred Renyi Institute of Mathematics in Budapest, Hungary, and Avi Wigderson belonging to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton,US.

The Abel Prize has been awarded to them “for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, and their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics,” reads the statement on the Abel Prize website.

The award is named after the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel. The prize is one of the most prestigious honors in the field of mathematics and is often equated to the Nobel Prize in Mathematics. This award is given by the Abel committee appointed by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Since its inception in 2002, it is awarded annually to outstanding mathematicians.

Lovász and Wigderson helped develop the field of computational complexity and are pioneers in the field. The field of computational complexity mainly studies the speed and efficiency of computer algorithms.

Algorithms are sets of instructions to be followed in order to complete a task. The task could include solving an equation or determining the shortest route between two places or grouping of words in alphabetical order and so on. Any computer program designed to solve such problems has an algorithm.

In our day-to-day lives we often deal with computer applications designed to solve such problems. But some are better at solving problems compared to others. This implies that the algorithms in such applications or computer programs are better than the others, meaning that they use fewer steps consistently in reaching the solution.

To use a better application and quickly find solutions to our problems may seem to be very usual, but working it out computationally is not an easy task. Here, a whole field of research emerged and it exists in the overlap of mathematics and computer science.

Widgerson and Lovász cemented the link between mathematics and computer science and enhanced the field of computational complexity. Widgerson, who is known for seeing links among different disciplines, commented: “There are no more important problems anywhere in science. Any process is an algorithm – neurons in the brain or planets in the solar system or crises in the financial markets, all of these have some fixed rules. What can be applied to computers can be applied to basically everything.”

Lovász is a mathematician and worked across many disciplines of mathematics. He applied graph theory, a branch of mathematics, to the study of computational complexity. “In addition to his work on the foundational underpinning of computer science, Lovász has also devised powerful algorithms with wide-ranging applications, such as the LLL algorithm, which has had remarkable applications in areas including number theory, cryptography and mobile computing,” reads the Abel prize website.

Computational complexity, has now become an established field for both mathematics and computer science. This field is also important from the perspective of cyber security as it provides the theoretical basis to internet security.

The field of computational complexity was in infancy in 1970s, but a generation of mathematicians from that period realized that mathematics would be a new area of application in computer science. Lovász and Wiggerson have been consistently working in this field since then and have played an important role in its development.