Celebrated mathematician Dennis Parnell was Sullivan GS ’66 awarded the Abel Prize 2022. The honor is considered one of the highest honors that can be awarded to a research mathematician equivalent a Nobel Prize in mathematics.
Sullivan’s honor marks the fifth consecutive year that the Abel Prize has been awarded to an individual associated with the university. Currently, 10 of the 25 Abel Prize winners are Princeton members.
The Abel Committee, made up of five mathematicians from around the world, selected Sullivan “because of his seminal contributions to topology in the broadest sense, and in particular to its algebraic, geometric and dynamic aspects,” the announcement reads.
The Abel Prize was established by the Norwegian government in 2002 and has been awarded annually by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Literature since 2003. The award is accompanied by a sum of 7.5 million Norwegian kroner, or approximately US$860,000, funded by the Norwegian government.
Sullivan explained in an interview with The Daily Princetonian that he spent eight years solving what he believed to be arguably the most difficult problem of his career: the universality of the period doubling cascade, a problem discovered by physicists, computer research on dynamic systems in the 1970s.
Sullivan recalled learning from Princeton mathematicians such as his advisor William Browder GS ’58, Norman Steenrod, and Solomon Lefschetz as a graduate student in the 1960s, and how that experience helped him in his research career.
“I was in the right place at the right time with the right interest,” Sullivan remarked. “Things split in the 1970s. Geometry went one way while algebra went another way. I went into a third direction, dynamics, but I still had this understanding of both the geometric and algebraic parts, and that was always very useful. Princeton was great.”
Sullivan is a Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at State University of New York at Stony Brook and Albert Einstein Chair in Science at the Graduate Center at City University of New York (CUNY).
Sullivan was born in Port Huron, Michigan in 1941 and graduated with a BA in mathematics from Rice University in 1963 before coming to Princeton to study mathematics.
He originally wanted to study chemical engineering before moving to mathematics after watching a professor demonstrate a topology theorem.
After completing his PhD at Princeton, Sullivan worked on a series of fellowships at the University of Warwick in England, the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Sullivan spent a year as professor associé at the University of Paris-Orsay and in 1974 became permanent professor at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS) in France.
He became a faculty member at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1981 and worked simultaneously in the United States and France until leaving IHÉS to work Rocky creek in 1996.
He received his Ph.D. in mathematics Princeton 1966 after completing a doctoral thesis entitled “Triangulating homotopy equivalences” under the supervision of Browder.
Browder shared his praise for Sullivan in an email to The Prince.
“Dennis was a member of my first group of graduate advisors when I came to Princeton faculty, and even among that stellar group, Dennis stood out, larger than life, going further, harder grinder, and an intellectual vacuum cleaner who always works at high power.” Broder wrote. “His dissertation made a great contribution to our field and he has been flying high ever since.”
He received the Sullivan Abel Prize for his pioneering contributions to topology and dynamical systems, which can be traced back to his studies at Princeton.
Sullivan’s Ph.D. Building on the work of Browder and Russian mathematician Sergei Novikov, the dissertation dealt with the classification of manifolds: a class of fundamental mathematical objects that appear flat from a single point on their surface, but possess a much more complex global geometry than in reality.
Sullivan’s work on classifying manifolds in five or more dimensions greatly accelerated the development of operation theory, an innovative set of techniques used to transform one manifold into another.
Sullivan’s interest in manifolds and topology helped him make contributions in unexpected areas and make unexpected connections; The award ceremony called him a “true virtuoso” for developing deep insights in various fields.
John Milnor ’51 GS ’54, a fellow mathematician of Stony Brook and the 2011 Abel Prize winner, met Sullivan when Sullivan was a graduate student at Princeton. He reflected on his decades of experience learning from Sullivan.
“He’s a wonderful mathematician, full of ideas and very good at talking to people and explaining his ideas,” Milnor told The Prince. “We both wandered from topic to topic. Even though I’m 10 years older than him, I think I learned a lot more from him than he did from me because he worked much earlier in areas that later interested me.”
Sullivan’s numerous other honors include the 1993 King Faisal International Prize for Science, the 2005 US National Medal of Science, and the 2010 Wolf Prize in Mathematics. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991.
Sullivan will be presented with the Abel Prize by King Harald V of Norway in a ceremony May 24 in Oslo.
Allan Shen is a veteran writer who frequently reports on research and obituaries. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @fulunallanshen. Previously, he was Associate News Editor.