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Dennis Sullivan wins Wolf Prize for math achievements

Rice News staff

When the call came, Dennis Sullivan '63 had something else on his mind and on his arm.

"I was just running out the door with my 7-year-old Sunday morning when the phone rang and a lady said, 'Just a moment, please,'" Sullivan said of the call informing him he'd won the 2009 Wolf Prize in Mathematics, one of the world's highest honors in the field.
"This guy comes on, with an Israeli accent, and he tells me the news. And I say, 'Well, that's really great, but I have to go now.' My daughter was pulling me out the door. So I didn't really get to enjoy the moment."

Sullivan was one of seven scientists named this week as winners of the Wolf Prize, considered Israel's Nobel Prize for “achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples, irrespective of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political view.” German-born inventor, diplomat and philanthropist Ricardo Wolf, who served for a time as Cuba's ambassador to Israel, founded the awards in 1976. They are given for agriculture, chemistry, medicine, physics and the arts, as well as math, and come with a $100,000 prize.

Sullivan's contributions to the study of algebraic topology and conformal dynamics have won him a permanent place in the ranks of great mathematicians. His accomplishments since earning a bachelor's degree from Rice and a doctorate from Princeton University include co-founding what's known as the surgery method of classifying higher-dimensional manifolds and the field of rational homotopy theory. He was a recipient of Rice's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1988 and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush in 2006.

"The Wolf Prize is awarded to mathematicians based on the totality of the work they've done and its overall influence on mathematics over the long term," said Rice's Brendan Hassett, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics.

"The Fields Medal, probably the most famous award in mathematics, is awarded to people under the age of 40 based on one breakout piece of work, often the solution of a specific, hard problem. The Wolf Prize is in a sense a better measure of accomplishment, because it captures the overall influence of a circle of ideas or a group of techniques."

Sullivan is a father of six, who range in age from 7 to 44 ("I don't know when I've had time to do all this math," he quipped), and at 68, he continues to teach a full complement of students as the Albert Einstein Chair at the Graduate Center at City University of New York and as a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University.

"As professors in this country, we don't have to retire, and math people tend to just keep on going," Sullivan said. "I feel very lucky to have found something like this that pays a nice living and lets me do what I like."

When the Houston native entered Rice in 1959, he had different ideas. "I wasn't a math major when I started; I was a chemical engineer," he said. "I made a D in my first semester of calculus – the infamous Math 100. I really didn't know what I was doing; I didn't know how to study. I wasn't one of those 'good' Rice students."

Two calculus instructors set him right, he said. "One was a guy named Jim Douglas (now an emeritus professor at Purdue) and then there was Frank Jones.

"These guys were real mathematicians. They were tough, but they knew what they were doing, and they were excited about the subject," he said. "I wasn't so silly that I didn't notice them. And they clamped down on me. I was kind of a quasi-juvenile delinquent, but they got my attention, and I thought, 'This stuff's pretty cool.' By the end of the year I was doing OK."

"Good for me!" said Jones, Rice's Noah Harding Professor of Mathematics, laughing. "I remember that, even though it was a long time ago. He was terrific, of course, but totally undisciplined." Jones deflected any notion of credit for his student's success. "I think he was going to do it anyway. It was nice that I was there at the right time. But it didn't depend on me."

"The fact that Rice had real mathematicians teaching a first-year undergraduate course was kind of amazing," Sullivan said. "That's not true everywhere. A lot of famous places have their big, famous professors, and they have graduate students doing a lot of the work. But at Rice, it was a real crucible. It was a real experience."

Sullivan also recalls taking courses taught by Nobel Prize-winners Robert Curl, Rice's University Professor Emeritus and Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus, and Ronald Sass, the Harry C. and Olga Keith Wiess Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a fellow at the Baker Institute.

His connections to Rice remain strong. Robin Forman, Rice's dean of undergraduates, gave a talk at "Dennisfest," a symposium in New York on the occasion of Sullivan's 60th birthday in 2001. Two of Sullivan's daughters attended Rice, and he comes to Houston frequently to visit his mother, Rita, who lives near the campus, and to deliver the occasional lecture.

Sullivan will travel to Israel in May to collect the Wolf Prize.