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Pioneering Women in Mathematics

By Oluwaogbon Akinnola

Photo credit: Pixabay

It is universally acknowledged, especially by university students, that women are under-represented in the fields of science and mathematics. From the classroom to the boardroom, the scientific populace is predominately male. There are many reasons for balance of the sexes tipping so heavily to the XY combination: society was once significantly more patriarchal with men being favoured regarding education amongst many other things. Thankfully the situation is vastly different in much of the world where women receive the same education as men and professions are no longer assigned by gender. Efforts, such as the Female Engineer of the Year award and the American Assembly for Men in Nursing, are helping tear down the gender stereotypes that limit our society’s growth. Yet, just as Rome wasn’t built overnight, the co-ed classroom was the result of endeavours of some enlightened people throughout history. So, to celebrate the women marching around the world this month and honour some of the brilliant women that have opened doors for their juniors, a little history lesson with some help from Sarah Zielinski at the smithsonianmag.com.

Hypatia of Alexandria

A 19th century wood engraving of Hypatia of Alexandria. (Public Domain).

One of the first female mathematicians, Hypatia, was an Egyptian scholar born around 350 A.D [1]. She was arguably the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer during her time. She worked with her father Theon, a member of the legendary library of Alexandria. Together they endeavoured to preserve Greek mathematical and astronomical works in socially tense times and added commentary to the works. Hypatia also exceled in philosophy and many scholars visited her to hear her lecturers in Neoplatonism, which unfortunately made her a target for Christian zealots of the time. Her academic brilliance and pursuit of knowledge in the face of such hostile prejudice has made her a strong symbol of feminism.

Ada Lovelace

A water colour portrait of Ada Lovelace (Public Domain).

Born Augusta Ada Gordon on December 10th, 1815, to poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, Lovelace was encouraged into mathematics by her mother in an effort to steer her away from inheriting her father’s volatile nature [2]. Displaying a keen interest in machines during her childhood, Lovelace’s mentor Mary Sommerville introduced her to Charles Babbage, famous for his innovative calculating machines such as the Analytical Engine. It was this design, described as the world’s first computer, that became the platform for Lovelace to demonstrate her brilliance. Babbage asked her expand on a translation she had written of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s description of the Engine. The “Enchantress of Numbers”, a title given to her by Babbage, produced an article three times longer than the original that included a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers, now acknowledged as the world’s first computer program [3]. Sadly Lovelace died of cancer at only 36, shortly after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”, yet her work inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers. Lovelace’s passion for technology and the potential she demonstrated have made her a powerful figure for women in technology.

Emmy Noether

Portrait of Emmy Noether (Public Domain).

Born into a mathematical family on the 23rd of March, 1882, Amalie Emmy Noether was a ground-breaking German mathematician who overcame many hurdles during her journey to greatness. Noether studied the arts and attended “finishing school”, as was customary of upper-middle class girls of her time, and became a qualified French and English teacher. She diverted from the path society laid out for her, however, deciding instead to study mathematics [4]. Her education in the subject was delayed as women were not permitted to enrol at the local University of Erlangen at the time. Instead Noether audited the mathematics classes as one of two women amongst thousands of men. In spite of this, she sat the graduation examinations at the University and exceled, earning an equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. She continued her studies at the University of Göttingen before returning back to Erlangen once the institution began enrolling female students. She received her PhD in mathematics summa cum laude, or ‘with very high honour’, in 1907. The natural next step for Noether would have been professorship but her progress was stymied once again due to gender inequality. Instead she worked at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen without pay or official recognition with a title for 7 years. The work she conducted earned her a reputation as a brilliant mathematician and she was invited to return to Göttingen in 1915 by David Hilbert and Felix Christian Klein, two prominent mathematicians of the time who needed help with a on a theory of relativity they were producing close to that of Albert Einstein’s [5]. However, the faculty would not officially recognise her with an associate professor title. “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her,” Hilbert challenged the administration “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.” Though unsuccessful in their petitions, Hilbert and Klein convinced Noether to remain at Göttingen where she developed what is sometimes called the Noether theorem and reportedly “took up swimming at a men-only pool.” [6].

Her theorem proved a relationship between symmetries in physics and conservation principles and was praised by Einstein. He, along with Hilbert, continued to make her case at the University and she was eventually awarded an associate professorship but later lost this due to her being Jewish and a pacifist. Noether eventually moved to America to continue her work as a lecturer and researcher at Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1935, Einstein wrote to the New York Times hailing her as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began” [7].

Conclusion

This brief insight into the lives of three exceptional women that have helped shape the less gender-blind society we now enjoy is exactly that: a glimpse of the advances women have achieved in just one field. I encourage you to learn more about the mathematicians discussed here as well as others. Better still, don’t limit yourself to the field of mathematics. It is unfortunate that throughout history women have been relegated to an air like existence, a necessary component of their respective fields yet unseen and often forgotten. Yet we can change this. Actions like supporting films like Hidden Figures and attending women led conferences are just a couple of suggestions as to how we can change the landscape of STEM fields. I implore you to breathe deep the successes of these pioneers and let them inspire you to continue their good work, whether you’re made of sugar and spice or snips and snails.


References

  1. Deakin, M. (2014). Hypatia | biography - Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/279463/Hypatia [Accessed 25 Feb. 2015].
  2. Sdsc.edu, (n.d.). Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing. [online] Available at: https://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/lovelace.html [Accessed 26 Feb. 2015].
  3. Findingada.com, (n.d.). Who was Ada?. [online] Available at: http://findingada.com/about/who-was-ada/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2015]
  4. Sdsc.edu, (n.d.). Emmy Noether: Creative Mathematical Genius. [online] Available at: https://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/noether.html [Accessed 26 Feb. 2015]
  5. Www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk, (n.d.). Noether_Emmy biography. [online] Available at: http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Noether_Emmy.html [Accessed 26 Feb. 2015]
  6. ANGIER, N. (2012). Emmy Noether, the Most Significant Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/science/emmy-noether-the-most-significant-mathematician-youve-never-heard-of.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 [Accessed 26 Feb. 2015]
  7. Zielinski, S. (2011). History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. [online] Smithsonianmag.com. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/five-historic-female-mathematicians-you-should-know-100731927/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2015]

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