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Monday, March 7, 2016

Women History Month

With Hilary Clinton leading the democratic polls - potentially being our first female president, and National Women's History being one of March's claims to fame, the Center of Math found it appropriate to shed light on historic female mathematicians!


Despite there not being records of the first female mathematician, Hypatia is certainly recognized as one of the earliest. Following in her fathers footsteps, she invested her time int he study of math and astronomy. Her father, the last known member of the famed library of Alexandria, collaborated with Hypatia on various commentaries of classical mathematical works. This process involved translating mathematical methods and translating them, while incorporating explanatory notes. The partnership between her and her father inspired Hypatia to create her own commentaries and including them in her practice as a teacher. Her passion of philosophy and her commitment to the Neoplatonism belief system, a system where everything emanates from "The One", lead her to become a convenient scapegoat in various political outbreaks. Unfortunately, she was killed by a mob of Christian zealots.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) 

Her love for the study of mathematics was sparked by her isolation during the French Revolution. She thought herself Latin and Greek to understand classic mathematical works. Being female, and unable to study at the École Polytechnique, she obtained lecture notes and submitted papers to professor Joseph Lagrange, under a false name. Once he discovered she was a female, he became her mentor. His many networks lead Sophie to make her own connections with other prominent mathematicians. At the time, her work was not up to par with other male mathematicians due to her informal training and lack of resources. Despite the odds against her, she became the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences on the theory of elasticity and her proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, though unsuccessful, was used as a foundation for work on the subject.

Ada Lovelace 

Her overprotective mother, encouraged Ada to stray from her father, Lord Byron's path. The poet left Ada and her mother in England after a scandal shortly after his daughters birth. Ada's mother pushed her toward the study of science and mathematics, later collaborating with the inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage. He gave Ada the responsibility of translating and Italians mathematician's memoir, analyzing his Analytical Engine - some would consider this one of the first computers. Beyond translating the memoir, Ada included her own set of notes and a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli number, now acknowledged as the first computer program. 

Sofia Kovalevskaya 

Like Sophie Germain, Sofia was not allowed to attend university due to her sex. She contracted a marriage with Vladimir Kovalevsky and moved to Germany. There, she  was tutored and after writing treatises on partial differential equations, Abelian integrals and Saturn's rings, received a doctorate degree. She was later appointed lecturer in mathematics at the University of Stockholm and later became the first woman in that region to become a full time professor. In 1988 she won the Prix Bordin from the French Academy of Sciences and in 1989 won a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences the next year. 

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

Albert Einstein, in 1935 wrote a letter to the New York Times describing deceased Emmy Noether as "the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began." After receiving her PhD, for a dissertation on abstract algebra she had a hard time obtaining a position a university position. She overcame this hurdle by moving to America and becoming a lecture and researcher at Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. There, she developed many mathematical foundations for Einstein's general theory of relativity while making advances in the field of algebra. 

    Maryam Mirzakhani - Fields Medallist

More recently, in 2014, the first woman was awarded the Fields Medal. Awarded by a committee from the International Mathematical Union (IMU), the Fields Medal is almost synonymous with a Nobel Prize in the world of mathematics. The medal, usually awarded to between two and four researchers, must be younger than 40, motivating the winner to strive for "further achievement" as well as recognizing their success. Maryam Mirzakhani broke the male dominated winning streak, dating back to 1936. As a moment hailed as "long overdue", Mirzakhani was recognized for her work on complex geometry. Professor Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee, expresses her contempt toward the math field and how it is viewed as "a male preserve", while women have contributed to mathematics for centuries. She describes Mirzakhani's win: "I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future." 



  1. Y'all should add the first female Fields medalist!