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Remembering Eminent UT Austin Mathematician John Tate

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John Tate
John Tate, 2010, winner of the Abel Prize for mathematics (Photo by Marsha Miller)

AUSTIN, Texas — John Tate, who won the world’s top prize in mathematics and taught for nearly 20 years at The University of Texas at Austin where he was Regental Professor Emeritus, has died. He was 94.

Tate held the university’s Sid W. Richardson Chair in Mathematics and received several of the most prestigious prizes in science, including being named an Abel laureate, the highest honor in mathematics. He was also the recipient of the prestigious Wolf Prize and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Considered a prime architect in the development of the theory of numbers, Tate was a giant in a mathematical area that covers a wide range of problems, from the distribution of prime numbers to mathematics pertinent to a range of aspects of modern life, such as information storage and secure transmission in high-speed computing. Tate’s involvement with this elaborate and sophisticated branch of mathematics led to several concepts bearing his name: the Tate module, the Tate curve, the Tate Cycle, and many more.

“John Tate was an absolutely brilliant and legendary leader in the field. He built the number theory group here, and contributed significantly to the rise and prominence of UT mathematics,” said Thomas Chen, chair of the Department of Mathematics. “The impact of his research extends around the world. It has been transformative – even revolutionary – across many branches of mathematics. Despite his monumental stature as a scholar, he was also someone whom students and junior colleagues found to be modest, friendly and approachable.”

Tate once told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper that, although there were many applications for his work in important areas such as encryption and cryptography, what initially attracted him to mathematics was “the sheer beauty of it.”

Tate received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 1946 and a doctoral degree in 1950 from Princeton University, where he studied with Emil Artin, a leading mathematician of the 20th century. Tate’s thesis became one of the formative ingredients in the development of modern algebraic number theory. He went on to make fundamental discoveries over a period spanning six decades, first as a faculty member at Harvard, then as a professor at UT Austin beginning in 1990. In 2009, he retired and received the title of professor emeritus, one year before winning the prize sometimes called “the Nobel of mathematics.”

“Many of the major lines of research in algebraic number theory and arithmetic geometry are only possible because of the incisive contributions and illuminating insights of John Tate,” noted the 2010 committee of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters that awarded him the Abel Prize. “He has truly left a conspicuous imprint on modern mathematics.”

Tate received many significant honors during his life, dating back as far as 1956 when the American Mathematical Society selected him for the Cole Prize for his outstanding contributions in number theory. Tate also received the society’s Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 1995 and was named one of its fellows in 2012. Internationally, he was recognized as a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences and an honorary member of the London Mathematical Society.