Female Mathematicians: Emmy and Sophie Have Lots of Company

Yesterday I grumbled that for Ada Lovelace Day, Smithsonian Magazine  had trotted out the same tired list of five historic women mathematicians: Hypatia, Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace herself,  Sofia Kovalevskaya, and Emmy Noether. Nothing wrong with any of these estimable women (except perhaps Hypatia, evidence for whose existence is a bit shaky). Emmy Noether, in particular, was one of the undisputed giants of 20th century mathematics, responsible for important advances in abstract algebra.

Mary Jo Foley at ZDnet challenged me to come up with some fresh names. So here are 10 more contemporary women mathematicians you should know:

Julia Robinson (1919-1985), a student of the great Polish mathematical logician Alfred Tarski, she did important work in computability theory and made major contributions to the solution of Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, which proved that no algorithm exists to find integer solutions to general Diophantine equations. She was the first female president of the American Mathematical Society.

Ingrid Daubechies (1954- ) professor of mathematics at Duke, is probably the world’s leading authority on wavelets, a technique of tremendous improtance in signal processing.

Kathleen Synge Morawetz, (1923- ) professor emerita and former director of the Courant Institute of Mathematics at New York University, is known for her work in the field of the fluid dynamics of transsonic flows. She was the second woman to serve as president of the AMS.

Irene Stegun (1919-2008) was author, with Milton Abramowitz, of the National Bureau of Standards A Handbook of Mathematical Functions. For five decades, and especially before the widespread availability of computers, the Handbook’s tables of function values were an invaluable tool for researchers in pure and applied  mathematics. Although Stegun is listed as the second author, Abramowitz dies early in the project and the work is mostly her responsibility.

Mina Rees (1902-1997) earned her PhD at the University of Chicago under Leonard Dickson and did research in abstract algebra, but is best known for her work as director of the mathematical department of the Office of Naval Research, where she played an important role in the early development of computers. She was the first woman president of the AAAS.

Olga Taussky-Todd (1906-1995) was a leader in the modern development of linear algebra. During World War II, she did important work at the National Physics Laboratory in the UK studying the vibrations of aircraft.

Mary Ellen Rudin (1924- ), professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin, is best known for her contributions to  point-set topology.

Jean Taylor (1944- ), professor emerita at Rutgers, is a leader of research into the geometry of minimal surfaces, a field important in exlainting the growth of crystals–and soap bubbles.

Karen Uhlenbeck (1942- ), professor at the University of Texas-Austin, has done research in diverse fields inlcluding the caluculus of variations, nonlinear partial differential equations, and gauge theroy. She is a former MacArthur Fellow.

Fan Chung (1949- ) professor of mathematics at the University of California-San Diego and a leading graph theorist.

Women account for between a quarter and a third of the math PhDs awarded in the U.S., a number that hasn’t budged much in recent years. Women still have trouble getting tenured positions in top departments. And a woman has yet to win a Fields Medal or an Abel Prize. But these will come.

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3 Responses to “Female Mathematicians: Emmy and Sophie Have Lots of Company”

  1. Dominique Says:

    Interesting post but please fix typos. Daubechies is misspelled as is Stegun in the description of her work. Cheers.

  2. georgekfrancis Says:

    You should add Joan Birman to your pantheon of woman mathematician. If you can’t find a bio, I’ll send one. A huge step forward in the evolution of human society was the discovery that women are as good at mathematics as men. I agree with your choices, especially regarding my sometime office mate, Karen Uhlenbeck. As for Hypatia, I’m sure she not only existed but possible lives in another guise, as St. Katherine of Alexandria; compare their martyrdom, one for teaching Neo Platonism, the other for teaching Christianity. Might these two professors at the museum (university) of Alexandria have been one and the same?

  3. sapphyre cullen Says:

    bleh this wasnt very helpful sorreeeeeeeyyyyyy

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