The Argentine mathematician Louis Caffarelli, a 74-year-old from Buenos Aires, remains absorbed when talking about a glass of ice. As the cubes melt, he explains enthusiastically, their edges round off, gradually creating a new world on that border between solid and liquid, a convoluted universe with changing energies and geometries. Caffarelli has been submerged in this type of microcosm for more than four decades and has managed to describe them mathematically, with increasing precision. This Wednesday he won the Abel Prize for this, considered the Nobel of mathematics and endowed with 7.5 million Norwegian crowns (660,000 euros).
“You cannot reach the truth, but at least you can get closer to it, to the complexity of reality,” he says by videoconference from his home in the US city of Austin, where he has been researching for a quarter of a century at the University of Texas. . The Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, which awards the award, has highlighted its “technically virtuous” results, especially in so-called free-boundary problems, such as those mathematical models of what happens at the interface between water and sea. ice, or an alloy of different molten metals that solidify at different rates. Caffarelli has also shone by delving into the Navier-Stokes equations, which since 1845 have described the flow of a viscous fluid, such as oil. The applications of his work are incalculable: the analysis of a person’s blood circulation, the prediction of the movement of oil, the manufacture of an automobile engine, financial mathematics, the refinement of the fundamental models that explain the universe.
Caffarelli received his doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires in 1972 and immediately emigrated with a scholarship to the United States, spending a decade at the mythical Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where the German physicist Albert Einstein ended up fleeing from the Nazis. “Mathematics linked to physics are the most interesting. I am not very much in favor of doing super-abstract research, which only half a dozen mathematicians can understand”, says the Argentine, closely linked to Spain and a member of the scientific advisory committee of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), in Madrid.
The researcher promoted a successful mathematics summer school with Ernest Luch
The researcher recalls that his first visit to the Spanish capital was in 1984, in the midst of a countercultural explosion after the Franco regime, although his interests were other. “The Madrid scene was not as important as Madrid food”, he jokes. Caffarelli exposed the interactions between solids and liquids with the help of Spanish colleagues, such as Antonio Córdoba, Ireneo Peral and Juan Luis Vazquez. Córdoba, former director of ICMAT, describes as “classic and revolutionary” the contributions of the Argentine in the field of partial differential equations, tools used in the mathematical description of the physical world that is the protagonist of daily life, such as fluids in motion. The man from Buenos Aires is the first Latin American to win the Abel Prize, an award established in 2002 by the Norwegian government to fill the mathematical gap for the Nobels.
Caffarelli and Córdoba met another Spaniard in Princeton, the economist Ernest Lluch, father of universal public health in Spain —as a minister in the first socialist government— and then rector of the Menéndez Pelayo International University. The three devised a successful mathematics summer school at the Palacio de la Magdalena in Santander, which ended when the terrorist group ETA assassinated Ernest Lluch with two shots to the head, in his garage, on November 21, 2000. Córdoba remembers that Caffarelli even bought a plot in the Madrid mountains, in Soto del Real, to build a house with his wife, also a brilliant mathematician. Irene Martinez Gamba. Ultimately, the couple stayed in the United States.
The Argentine researcher remembers that time with nostalgia. “Madrid was, scientifically, one of the most interesting places, perhaps because it was a combination of doing mathematics and the very friendly life we had among us. Speaking the same language made it much easier to have deep scientific discussions”, he recalls. Caffarelli has spent entire quarters in Madrid since the eighties, but he never finished with a glass of ice after his mathematical days. “If you want to drink, in Spain you drink good wine,” he comments with a laugh.
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