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Professor Svetlana Jitomirskaya Wins the 2020 Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics

by: Dhanika Pineda

photo credit: Svetlana Jitomirskaya

The 2020 Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics has been awarded to UCI Distinguished Professor of mathematics Svetlana Jitomirskaya. She is the second woman to receive the award since its establishment in 1959 and the first woman to receive it on her own, following Cornell University’s Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat who co-received the prize in 2003 with James W. York. 

The Dannie Heineman Prize was established by the Heineman Foundation for Research, Education, Charitable and Scientific Purposes, Inc., and is administered jointly by the American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics. The prize is awarded to those who have made highly valuable or outstanding published contributions in the mathematical physics community. The prize is one of the nation’s highest awards for physics — seven previous winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize. 

Professor Jitomirskaya attended Moscow State University in Russia and earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1987, followed by her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1991. 

“I didn’t plan to go into Mathematical Physics,” Professor Jitomirskaya said. “I was an undergraduate at Moscow State University, the system was very different. You would start to work with an advisor during your third year. We were supposed to choose a professor by the end of the second year of study. In my sophomore year, I was only 17 years old, and naturally, I was choosing between my two favorite professors—Vladimir Arnold, who taught ordinary differential equations, and Yakov Sinai, who taught probability. I was not assigned to Arnold’s ODE class, so I would go to the lectures by my professor, but I would still always attend Arnold’s lectures. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” 

Although she preferred Arnold’s lectures, Sinai ended up becoming the advisor for Jitomirskaya. She explained that an interaction she had with Sinai during one of her sophomore year lectures led to her gaining a better understanding of him and his field, which ultimately led to his becoming her advisor. 

“One time [Sinai] saw that me and my friends were giggling [during class]. He called out a guy next to me and said, ‘Okay, do you want to tell us this definition?’ and he couldn’t. He asked someone else who also couldn’t, and then he pointed at me and he said, ‘Maybe the young lady could help us,’ a little sarcastically,” Jitomirskaya said. “I not only told him the definition, but I told him how he was going to use it to finish the proof. Impressed with my answer, he invited me to join a learning seminar on ergodic theory designed for sophomores to encourage them to go into his field. I liked the ergodic theory and signed up with him. After I did, the first paper he gave me to read was by a mathematical physicist and I hated it, but it was too late. Only later and slowly I started understanding mathematical physics.” 

Arnold and Sinai both went on to win the Dannie Heineman Prize for mathematical physics, Sinai in 1990 and Arnold in 2001. Jitomirskaya is happy to continue the line of success and recognition from her two large influences: 

“I thought Arnold was doing ODEs and Sinai was doing probability, but turns out whoever I had picked as my mentor, I would be doing mathematical physics.” 

Professor Jitomirskaya would like to leave a mark on the world by disseminating knowledge. 

“I want to make a mark on this world through my work and my research, through raising students who will go on to do research of their own, and raise their own students and so forth. I’d like the world to become more knowledgeable and I do my best to help that process,” Jitomirskaya said.