Mathematician, John W. Milnor, left, of the Institute for Mathematical...

Mathematician, John W. Milnor, left, of the Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Stony Brook University, has been awarded the 2011 Abel prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. (March 24, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

When Stony Brook University mathematics professor John Milnor learned he had won the internationally prestigious Abel Prize and its nearly $1-million award, he immediately thought how he'd spend some of the money: Fly first class instead of coach.

"I never fit in airplanes and I have a terrible time traveling," Milnor, who stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall, said Thursday, minutes before a university celebration in his honor.

On Monday at 6 a.m., one hour before the Abel Prize was officially announced by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Milnor learned in a telephone call to his Setauket home that he had won the award those in his field consider the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. (There is no Nobel in mathematics.)

Milnor said he was not entirely surprised, but the news still was startling and gratifying.

"It's a great honor," he said. "I certainly considered that I was a candidate, but I certainly didn't have any expectations."

Milnor, 80, is a mathematics legend, noted the Norwegian Academy and the professor's colleagues, with numerous terms and concepts carrying his name.

"John Milnor's profound ideas and fundamental discoveries have largely shaped the mathematical landscape for the second half of the 20th century," the academy said. "In the literature we find Milnor exotic spheres, Milnor fibration, Milnor number and many more. . . . He has also written tremendously influential books, which are widely considered to be models of fine mathematical writing."

The academy said it honored Milnor "for pioneering discoveries in topology, geometry, and algebra." He will receive the prize from His Majesty King Harald in Oslo on May 24.

Leon A. Takhtajan, chairman of Stony Brook's mathematics department, said, "Milnor's influence on mathematics development cannot be overestimated. . . . Many generations of mathematicians were brought up on his classic papers and books."

Another Stony Brook mathematics professor, Dennis Sullivan, himself a major prize-winner, recalled that when he arrived at Princeton University as a graduate student 47 years ago, a fellow student offered a simple summation about Milnor, who was teaching there at the time: "He's God."

Milnor said he didn't begin to realize his main talent was mathematics until his freshman year at Princeton. "I was very socially maladjusted," he joked, "so I tended to spend a lot of time in the math commons room, which was very welcoming."

He added: "I just found that most subjects were very hard and mathematics seemed much easier to me."

He taught at Princeton, MIT and UCLA before arriving at Stony Brook 20 years ago.

Ahmad Rafiqi, 21, a math major at the university, said Milnor "has a very amazing way of making hard things seem simple."

Stony Brook president Samuel L. Stanley said Milnor's award underscores the world-class quality of the university's math department.

"In these times, when our state university is under fiscal siege, this recognition states more clearly than anything I could say, what we do at Stony Brook and why it matters," he said.

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