International Women in Mathematics Day was adopted during the World Meeting for Women in Mathematics, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. The initiative was proposed by the Women’s Committee of the Iranian Mathematical Society. May 12 was chosen in honor of Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born on May 12, 1977, and the first woman to win a Fields Medal, the highest award given by the international mathematical community.
Having an international day to commemorate the role of women in mathematics not only means claiming the importance of their work on that day, but also shows the lack of recognition of the role of female mathematicians throughout history. That is why OpenMind would like to highlight the profiles of some of the key women in mathematics.
THEANO (6th century B.C.)
Theano is one of the earliest known female mathematicians. Despite her importance, she is largely unknown, as her husband, the mathematician Pythagoras, was more famous.
An outstanding student of the Pythagorean School, she was the author of several treatises on mathematics, physics and medicine. One of her main contributions was a theorem on the golden ratio.
HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA (mid-3rd century)
Hypatia was a legendary Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who broke gender barriers and went down in history even though many of her writings were lost.
Her contributions include “Commentaries on the Arithmetic of Diophantus”, the edition of “The Elements of Euclid”, the construction of a hydroscope and a flat astrolabe.
ÉMILIE DU CHÂTELET (1706-1749)
The Marquise de Châtelet dedicated her life to the study of the works of the great scientists of the time. Her social position allowed her to develop her intelligence and mathematical knowledge, even translating Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” into French. She was a partner of Voltaire, whom she infected with her passion for science.
MARIA GAETANA AGNESI (1718-1799)
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an outstanding mathematician, linguist and philosopher. She grew up in a bourgeois environment in touch with intellectuals of the time. Pressured by her father to continue her studies, she could not lead the religious life she desired.
She was recognized for the simplicity and clarity with which she wrote “Analytical Institutions”, a compendium of mathematics that was used for many years as a textbook throughout Europe.
MARÍA ANDRESA CASAMAYOR DE LA COMA (1720 – 1780)
An anagram was the key for Maria Andressa Casamayor de La Coma to cultivate her vocation for mathematics in the middle of the 18th century, when women could only be wives or nuns. With this trick she turned her name into Casandro Mamés de La Marca y Araioa and became the first author of a science book in Spain.
SOPHIE GERMAIN (1776– 1831)
Sophie Germain was a prominent mathematician of the late 18th century who, against her family’s wishes and under the pseudonym Monsieur Le Blanc, studied at a distance and corresponded with leading mathematicians such as Lagrange and Gauss. Although many did not recognize her merits, she was a great pioneer in the theory of elasticity and the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences.
MARY SOMERVILLE (1780-1872)
Mary Somerville was an astronomer, mathematician, geographer, writer and self-taught scientist. Through her prolific and multidisciplinary work, she contributed to the spread of science in all its fields. She stood out for the simple, rigorous and didactic style with which she managed to make science accessible to all. Her books were used as textbooks in England until the beginning of the 20th century. She fought for women’s suffrage and their access to education.
SOFÍA KOVALEVSKAYA (1850-1891)
At the age of eleven, the Russian Sofia Kovalevskaya papered her walls with calculus theorems. This love of mathematics marked her life: she was the first female professor in Russia, won the Bordin Prize, managed to solve a problem posed by Leonhard Euler himself and also stood out for her literary work, vindicating the role of women in the intellectual world.
ADA LOVELACE (1815–1852)
Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was an original, intuitive and ambitious person, who studied mathematics, geometry, algebra and astronomy.
She collaborated with Charles Babbage in the design of the “analytical machine’”, a machine capable of performing general mathematical calculations.
MILEVA MARIC (1875–1948)
To tell the story of Mileva Maric is also to tell the story of Albert Einstein, since the postulates and theories that made this scientist famous are, at least, the result of the work of both of them. There are many testimonies and documentary evidence that support the theory of an appropriation by Einstein of Mileva’s research activity, who always showed an extraordinary intelligence and aptitude for mathematics.
EMMY NOETHER (1882–1935)
Emmy Noether, mother of abstract algebra, debuted in science with a simple and profound theorem that allowed understanding and solving the problem of conservation of energy and that was a multipurpose for the theoretical physics of the twentieth century. But she could not be a professor, because she was a woman. In 1918 she proposed the Noether Theorem, which applies to mathematical physics.
GRACE MURRAY (1908–1992)
Grace Murray was a pioneering woman both in the world of mathematical research and as one of the first women to have a military career, with more than forty years of service. Her most important achievement was creating the first system that adapted programming language to the language of computing machines.
KAREN UHLENBECK (1942)
Karen Uhlenbeck is considered one of the founders of the area of geometric analysis and received in 2019 the Abel Prize for her research with partial differential equations in several dimensions, with gauge theory and integrable systems, and for the fundamental impact of her work on mathematical physics.
MARYAM MIRZAKHANI (1977-2017)
Born in Iran, Mirzakhani emigrated to the United States to complete her doctoral thesis at Harvard University. She died at the age of 40 due to breast cancer. Her most famous contributions deal with the so-called billiards problem.
In 2014 she was awarded the Fields Medal, becoming the first woman to receive this prize considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics.