Female mathematicians – a homage for International Women’s Day
Women still remain underrepresented in many areas of STEM – in particular within mathematics. Over the years to come I am very certain that women will make up a larger percentage of both students and academics within mathematics and statistics.
In the meantime, I want to share some female trailblazers with you. In particular, I want to share with you some significant contributions women have made within mathematics whilst battling prejudice and educational hurdles.
Sophie Germain, 1776-1831
Germain was a young girl when the French Revolution began in France. She read about Archimedes as a distraction from the ongoing unrest and soon decided upon becoming a mathematician. Although Germain could not study at university because of her gender she completed private study, being financially supported by her father. She had regular contact with world-leading mathematicians at the time, using a pseudonym to hide her true identity. Her proofs were often applauded.
In one letter she made a significant finding in the hope of proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. This theorem, which has now been proved, conjectured that there are no integers x,y,z or natural number n greater than 2 such that x^n+y^n=z^n. Germain proved that if x + y = z then either x, y, or z must be divisible by 5. She did not receive the credit she deserved for this finding.
Germain made significant contributions to number theory and elasticity. One of her early correspondence, Gauss, encouraged the University of Gottingen to award Sophie with an honorary degree, she sadly died before she could receive this.
Sofia Kovalevskaya, 1850 – 1891
Kovalevskaya obtained the first female doctorate in Mathematics. First introduced to mathematics by the differential and integral analysis lecture notes plastered on her nursery wall as make shift wallpaper at 11, Kovalevskaya flourished as a mathematician. At home in Russia women were not allowed to study at university. She left Russia to study abroad, receiving written permission from a husband who agreed to a fictitious marriage in order to help her leave the country. She became married woman at 18, in the desperate attempt to study mathematics.
In 1888 she won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science, awarded to the best solution of a mathematical problem, for her much celebrated discovery “Kovalevsky top”. Following this greatly celebrated contribution to mathematics, a year later she was awarded Professorial Chair holder at Stockholm University. She became the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university.
The Sofia Kovalevskaya Award, presented by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, was created in 2002 as a research prize enabling talented researchers to study for five years at a research facility in Germany. It is one of the most revered research prizes in Germany.
Katherine Johnson, 1918 – 2020
Katharine Johnson was one of the first three black women to study at West Virginia University, having graduated from college at only 18 years old.
Langley laboratory was a research centre located at the National Advisory Committee for aeronautics (which we now know as NASA). This laboratory was created to study flight in the hope of creating prototypes which could be used to explore space. Engineers were needed to develop the prototypes but mathematicians were needed to crunch the numbers and study the physics required to make flight a reality. In 1935, Langley Laboratory started its first female computing pool. These female number crunchers needed to be qualified mathematician, similar to their entry level male engineer counterparts, but were paid a sub-professional salary.
Johnson joined an all-black female computing pool in 1953 and soon became a permanent member of the team. She is most well known for her contribution to the calculations required to map the trajectory of the US’s first human spaceflight in 1961. The next year she completed similar calculations to track the flight path of astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around the earth. In fact, she was called upon personally by the crew to check the numbers one more time before the mission then successfully set off into space.