Are control theorists (electrical engineering) considered mathematicians?

  • If so, would they receive a Fields medal if they make a breakthrough in control theory?
  • If not, is there a prize similar to the Field medal for control theorists?
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    So far as I know, the Fields Medal has never been awarded to someone whose work was primarily in applied rather than pure mathematics. On other hand, I looked up the wikipedia article on control theory, and at the bottom it lists Pierre-Louis Lions, a Fields Medalist. Jan 17, 2017 at 16:17
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    Putting aside the sociological aspects of the question, in my mind there is no question that control theory is a branch (and a very elegant and interesting one) of mathematics. Everything else - where control theorists are employed, what awards they receive etc - is just noise.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 17, 2017 at 16:26
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    Anyone who has doubts that control theory is of interest to pure mathematicians should read up on the life and work of Lev Pontryagin.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 17, 2017 at 16:30
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    Incidentally, I think there are many areas of mathematics that aren't fashionable enough for breakthroughs in those areas to be considered worthy of a Fields Medal. But practitioners of those areas are still considered completely respectable and mainstream mathematicians.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 17, 2017 at 18:00
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    Are control theorists considered mathematicians by whom?
    – JeffE
    Jan 18, 2017 at 0:31

2 Answers 2


While it seems true (based on my own quite sketchy observations) that many if not most control theory researchers may be employed in engineering departments rather than mathematics departments, I find the suggestion that control theory is not a branch of mathematics, or that control theorists are not mathematicians, both laughable and offensive (although I'll concede that probably some control theory experts have more of an engineering background and care less about proving theorems, and may not care to define themselves as mathematicians). Some important points to keep in mind are:

  1. Control theory has wide applications to many areas of engineering (mechanical, aeronautical, chemical etc), not just electrical engineering, so certainly OP's description "control theory (electrical engineering)" is inaccurate. In fact the field predates electrical engineering: the first detailed study of a control theory system was published by James Clerk Maxwell (of Maxwell equations fame) in connection with a purely mechanical control system used in steam engines.

  2. One of the other godfathers of control theory is Lev Pontryagin, known for the so-called Pontryagin's maximum principle, a fundamental result in the theory. Pontryagin (who incidentally was blind for most of his life) is regarded as one of the great pure mathematicians of the twentieth century. I am sure he would have laughed at the suggestion that his work on control theory was of a different nature than his work on algebraic topology or harmonic analysis because it was "applied" or "not mathematics but engineering".

  3. I know of at least one notable contemporary counterexample to the claim that control theorists are not "considered mathematicians". Arthur Krener, a leading expert in control theory, is a former professor and chair of my department -- a mathematics department -- and now a professor of mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society. He has won many awards for his work in control theory, most recently the IEEE Control Systems Award in 2016. I would be offended on his behalf at any suggestion that he is not a first-rate mathematician.


I don't have references on the demographics but, traditionally, many and probably most control theorists are engineers by formation and it's in the field of engineering (electrical, mechanical, aerospace, etc.) that most of control theory applications reside.

However, control theory is really a broad interdisciplinary subject comprising engineering, mathematics and, to a lesser extent, physics. For mathematics, topics like algebra, graph theory, dynamical systems theory, optimization theory, and functional analysis are fundamental for the development of control theory, and mathematicians have provided outstanding contributions, as Dan Romik well explained.

My interpretation of your question, however, is whether a control theorists who is engineer by formation is considered a mathematician. I don't like barriers between disciplines, and exceptions always exist, but in my experience engineers are seldom considered pure mathematicians, and their contributions to mathematics are usually far from the mathematics of interest to win a Fields medal.

Thus, there's no Fields medal for control theorists, at least in your probably intended sense, but IEEE awards prizes (e.g., the IEEE Control Systems Award) for outstanding contributions in the field.

But you don't choose a field for the prizes, right?

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    Can you add references to support your claims?
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 17, 2017 at 16:32
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    Massimo: very true. But (and sorry for ranting, this is a pet peeve of mine) control theory I regard as the extreme point highlighting the absurdity of this situation. If a researcher in, say, VLSI design, does work that touches on some deep mathematics, I still think it's reasonable not to consider that researcher as a mathematician. But control theory is really "just" a branch of mathematics that happens to have a ton of technological and engineering applications, so it is a lot more unfair for good work in control theory not to be noticed or appreciated by mathematicians.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 17, 2017 at 17:25
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    By the way, another somewhat similar example to which my pet peeve applies is game theory, which is mistaken by many people to be a subbranch of economics, but which I consider to be (to a good approximation) just a branch of mathematics that has many important applications to economics (as well as to other areas like evolutionary biology and political science).
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 17, 2017 at 17:28
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    @MassimoOrtolano I read that at first "I am a dentist now" - so I wanted to ask whether that has better chance of getting a Nobel - probably only if you need to use Dynamite ;-) Jan 17, 2017 at 18:32
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    @DanRomik I've modified my answer, I hope it now better reflects my thoughts and the reality: after all, I don't like war between fields, and I consider them pointless and fruitless. Jan 17, 2017 at 20:01

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