Mathematics Professor Receives Nation's Highest Science Award

John ThompsonMathematics Professor John Thompson has received one of the country's top scientific awards, the National Medal of Science. "It's wonderful to receive this recognition. I am truly honored," says Thompson. According to the National Science Foundation, which administers the awards, Thompson is "considered a world leader in algebra and a foremost group theorist."

The National Medal of Science is given each year by the White House and is the highest honor bestowed upon a scientist by the US government. Twelve medals were awarded by President Clinton during a dinner on December 1 in Washington, DC. "These exceptional scientists and engineers have transformed our world and enhanced our daily lives," Clinton said in a White House news release. "Their imagination and ingenuity will continue to inspire future generations of American scientists to remain at the cutting edge of scientific discovery and technological innovation."

Thompson's research has focused on group theory, a branch of mathematics that studies symmetries, such as those that arise in geometry and in the solutions to algebraic equations. Thompson is noted in the field for collaborating with fellow mathematician Walter Feit to solve one of its most difficult problems. The two worked on the so-called "odd order" problem and wrote a 253-page proof that comprised one entire issue of the Pacific Journal of Mathematics. This achievement won Thompson the Fields Medal in 1970, the highest prize in mathematics, equivalent in prestige to the Nobel Prize.

National Medal of ScienceIn addition to the Fields Medal, Thompson was awarded the Cole Prize of the American Mathematical Society in 1966, elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971, and elected Fellow of The Royal Society in 1979. He was awarded The Royal Society's Sylvester Medal in 1987, and in 1992 the Israeli government awarded Thompson the Wolf Prize for his lifelong contributions to mathematics.

Thompson joined the UF math department in 1993, after spending 23 years at the University of Cambridge in England. Krishnaswami Alladi, UF math department chair, refers to Thompson as the "crown jewel of our department." He also explains how Thompson's work in group theory has had a profound impact in shaping modern mathematics in general, and algebra in particular. "Thompson's name is closely associated with one of the monumental achievements of the twentieth century, namely the classification of the finite simple groups, which was completed in the 1980s. His record of sustained research activity at the highest level for four decades is a rarity even among Fields medallists."

--Allyson A. Beutke

Photo Courtesy:
National Science Board

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