Magazine article American Scientist

A Wealth of Complexities

Magazine article American Scientist

A Wealth of Complexities

Article excerpt


COMPLEXITIES: Women in Mathematics. Edited by Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett. xx + 412 pp. Princeton University Press, 2005. $52.50.

A WEALTH OF NUMBERS: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing. Edited by Benjamin Wardhaugh. xviii + 370 pp. Princeton University Press, 2012. $45.

Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett's Complexities: Women in Mathettmtics and Benjamin Wardhaugh's A Wealth of Numbers: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing are complementary compilations of essays on the history of mathematics. Complexities presents papers by women mathematicians along with reflections on the history and future of women in mathematics, and A Wealth of Numbers brings together mathematical essays from a wide range of popular sources. Although the two collections approach the history of mathematics from very different perspectives, each offers a strong sense of that history, and the volumes complement one another.

Look into the calculus classrooms of the school where I teach, and you'll find that more than half of the students are young women. In 2005, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Doctoral Recipients, over 29 percent of tenure-track faculty in mathematics and statistics were women. Yet many of us still find this increase in the number of women in tenure-track positions counter to our expectations.

Much remains to be done in reducing gender-based inequities, particularly in academia, but it is impossible to ignore how recently and swiftly women's participation in mathematics has increased. In her essay, "American Women in Mathematics's First Twenty Years," Lenore Blum recalls a joke she was told at a party she attended at MIT as a grad student in the sixties: "There have been only two women mathematicians in the history of mathematics. One wasn't a woman and one wasn't a mathematician." She notes parenthetically, "It may not be so surprising that in those years we were often accused of not having a sense of humor."

Complexities, which includes Blum's essay along with many others, is an antidote to the myth that joke expresses. Case and Leggett, the editors, have gathered essays from more than 70 authors, grouping them into five sections. The first part, "Inspiration," contains short biographical pieces about mathematicians from the 19th and early to mid-20th century. Many of these are written by the mathematicians' family members or students, so the portrayals offer a sense of intimacy as well as primary source material. The second section, "Joining Together," traces the development of the Association for Women in Mathematics from the 1970s to the 1990s. The essays in "Choices and Challenges" reflect on women mathematicians both inside and outside the academy, as well as accommodations they do and don't make for spouses and children. "Celebration" includes mathematical articles along with papers that intertwine mathematical and biographical strands. In the final section of the book, "Into a New Century," a number of younger mathematicians reflect on both mathematics as a career and the future of women in mathematics.

Among the book's many highlights is the essay "Being Julia Robinson's Sister," by Constance Reid, the author of a number of books on mathematics, including Julia: A Life in Mathematics and Hilbert. Reid made a career of writing about mathematics, largely due to her sister's encouragement. She notes, "Julia thought of mathematicians ... 'as forming a nation of our own without distinctions of geographical origins, race, creed, sex, age, or even time (the mathematicians of the past and you of the future are our colleagues too) - all dedicated to the most beautiful of the arts and sciences." The essay demonstrates the importance of informal connections and mentoring to success in the field.

In her essay on Sophie Germain, Mary W. Gray does a masterful job of integrating the story of Germain's life with that of her mathematical discoveries, in terms that are accessible to general readers. …

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