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Hooray for exotic hyperspheres

Mathematician John W. Milnor of the Institute for

Mathematician John W. Milnor of the Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Stony Brook University Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

In the 1950s, John Milnor, later called God by an awed graduate student, unleashed a kind of earthquake -- only this one shook the rarefied world of mathematics.

So it wasn't altogether surprising that the Stony Brook math professor recently won the most prestigious prize in a field that lacks a Nobel. Congratulations to him.

The prize -- and Milnor's work, which involves something called "exotic hyperspheres" -- underscores the strength of the Stony Brook math program, and reminds us that Long Island is home to some magnificent research institutions, in addition to some magnificent minds. A former chairman of Stony Brook's math department, James Simons, became so rich when he turned his intellect to finance that he was able to donate millions to the university through his foundation.

Milnor will get nearly a million of his own for the 2011 Abel Prize, awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, which said his work demonstrates "profound insights, vivid imagination, striking surprises and supreme beauty."

Milnor, 80, has had a long career, but what shook the world of mathematics was his discovery of what is known as a seven-dimensional sphere with some unusual mathematical properties. His work transformed the mathematical field of topology, or the study of spaces.

The prize will help Milnor solve an even thornier problem with space -- the problem of airline leg room. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he'll use some of his loot to fly first class.