John Milnor remembers arriving at Princeton University in 1948 as an introverted, "rather socially maladjusted" freshman who had a hard time making friends.
But he soon found a home in the Math Commons, a Gothic-style building where he played math board games with other students and began to make connections.
Before long a prominent professor, Al Tucker, put on a blackboard a mathematical problem about knots that no one had been able to solve for decades. A week later, Milnor came back to the class with the solution.
It was one of the first signs Milnor was a math genius destined for great things. By his mid-20s, he made a major breakthrough in the field, and by 31 won what was then the most prestigious international award in mathematics -- the Fields Medal.
Last month, at the age of 80, his career hit another peak when the Stony Brook University professor won what is often referred to as the Nobel Prize in Mathematics -- the Abel Prize, given by Norway. The Abel, awarded to Milnor for his discoveries in topology, geometry and algebra, came with a $1 million prize and confirmed his status as one of the greatest mathematicians of the second half of the 20th century.
"He's a legendary mathematician," said Dennis Sullivan, a fellow math professor at Stony Brook and himself a major award winner. "It is really remarkable how he influenced mathematics" in the last 60 years.
What is also remarkable, according to colleagues, is how humble, soft-spoken and unassuming Milnor remains. "There is not an arrogant bone in his body," said James Simons, a former chairman of Stony Brook's Math Department and a hedge fund manager who was listed by Forbes this year as the 74th richest person in the world. "He's a giant in the field."
Sitting in his office at Stony Brook recently, Milnor seemed unfazed by the latest honor. He said he still hadn't decided how to spend the $1 million -- "maybe buy a better computer," he said.
"My ambition is just to lead a quiet life and keep doing what I've been doing," he said. "I don't think I'll do anything dramatically different."
Stony Brook's president, Samuel L. Stanley Jr., said many of the concepts Milnor deals with are so complex that Stanley himself, who is a medical doctor, cannot understand them. "He's really a superstar," Stanley said.
Before he entered Princeton, Milnor said he had little notion he'd turn into a major figure in mathematics. His father was an engineer who left a few math books around the family's home in Maplewood, N.J. Milnor absorbed them.
He had a number of other interests, and when he got to Princeton he took a poetry course. "I was rather demoralized," he recalled, when the professor took his poem and announced to the class "this is exactly what not to do. It made me realize whatever talents I had were elsewhere."
When Milnor solved the knot problem in Tucker's class, it became part of the lore about him. "From then on it was really clear this guy was going places in math," said Mikhail Lyubich, a math professor at Stony Brook.
Milnor said that he soon "began to see this was the natural thing to do with my life. Princeton, he added, "was the first place where I really felt at home."
Normally students go elsewhere for their graduate studies, but Princeton wanted to keep Milnor, Sullivan said. "He was like finding Babe Ruth," Sullivan said.
So Milnor stayed on for his master's degree, doctorate and first teaching job.
In 1956, at age 26, he scored a major breakthrough in differential topology when he proved the existence of seven-dimensional spheres that later became known as "Milnor exotic spheres."
"This sort of shocked the mathematics world," Sullivan said.
In the meantime, Milnor got married and had three children, but went through a difficult divorce. He took a job at UCLA for a year to get some distance from his ex-wife, then went to MIT for two years before returning to Princeton. He stayed another 20 years and then joined Stony Brook in 1989, where his second wife, Dusa McDuff, was a math professor. They have one son.
He continued to make breakthroughs in the field, and a number of terms and concepts bear his name. His textbooks are considered classics, read by two generations of students