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Computer Algebra Pioneer Wins Nobel Prize

Published October 15, 1999

October 15, 1999–Dr. Martinus J.G. Veltman, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Michigan and former professor at the University of Utrecht, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday of this week. Dr. Veltman shares the award with Dr. Gerardus ‘t Hooft, his former student and colleague, now a professor of physics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Veltman and ‘t Hooft won the award for establishing mathematical foundations for gauge theories used in elementary particle physics.

In the early 1960s, Veltman developed the first general-purpose computer program that could perform complex algebraic calculations. This computer algebra program, called SCHOONSCHIP, was devised by Veltman primarily to assist in his work on the renormalizability of gauge theories, a mathematical technique that has been part of the ongoing search in quantum physics for a unifying relationship between electromagnetism, gravity, and strong and weak nuclear forces.

In 1979, when Stephen Wolfram began designing SMP, the first modern computer algebra program and predecessor to Mathematica, he visited with Dr. Veltman to learn more about Veltman’s experience in creating SCHOONSCHIP. According to Dr. Veltman, “Later, on the basis of this program [SCHOONSCHIP], the commercially successful software program Mathematica was developed by Wolfram. While most theoreticians were getting lost in all kinds of formulas, I could just get things calculated. That gave me an enormous advantage.”

Mathematica, the most complete technical computing system, is the program of choice on the frontiers of scientific research. Mathematica is used in nearly every major research laboratory, including CERN, SLAC, and Fermilab, where Veltman’s and ‘t Hooft’s theories have been verified. Mathematica has also been used by many Nobel Prize winners since its creation, including Willis Lamb (physics, 1955), Don Glaser (physics, 1960), and John F. Nash (economic sciences, 1994). However, Veltman’s and ‘t Hooft’s Nobel Prize is the first to be based, more or less, on work done using computer algebra. The shared $960,000 prize will be presented on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, after whom the award is named.