Divided by a factor of sex;Mathematics

Victoria Neumark

Mathematics may be the Queen of the sciences, but are there enough princesses? Patricia Rothman, senior lecturer at University College London would like to see more girls studying maths at university level. Her delightful book Women in the History of Mathematics should be compulsory for careers libraries.

The book traces the biographies of nine eminent female mathematicians, from Aspasia in 5th-century Greece to Emmy Noether, forced to flee from Nazi persecution in 1930s Germany. They are inspiring stories, not just because of the pluck and determination needed to overcome the difficulties placed in the women's paths by obstinate male relatives, but also because they are not mere token figures, but genuine contributors to human knowledge.

Aspasia is best known for being the cultivated girlfriend of Pericles, the Athenian statesman whose salon was a hothouse for the seedling growth of logic and deductive thinking. Then there is Hypatia of Alexandria, martyred by fanatical Christians in the early centuries AD for refusing to convert from Neo-Platonism. Many of her ideas are believed to have found their way into Euclid's work.

In the 18th century, the Marquise du Chatelet, friend of Voltaire, wrote pioneering essays on maths in physics (notably optics) and chemistry, for much of which Voltaire usually gets the credit. She translated Newton into French but died in childbirth following an affair with a younger man.

Maria Agnesi (1718-1799) gave her name to a geometrical shape known as the Witch of Agnesi; and Sophie Germain (1776-1831) created the concept of mean curvature in 3-D geometry.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) developed her interest in mathematics through reading puzzles in magazines. Her relatives were so determined to thwart her investigations as "damaging to the delicate female frame" that they confiscated her bed-time candles. So she learned Euclid by heart. Her husband William Somerville, joined lib- raries to take out books for her. An ardent feminist, she was honoured by having Somerville College named after her.

Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Byron, translated works on numerical analysis. Sofia Kovalevskaya worked on advanced algebra after musing on her mathematician father's old lecture notes, pasted on the nursery wall in lieu of wallpaper. Asked how it was possible to be a writer and a mathematician, she said: "Many people who have never had occasion to learn what mathematics is confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science. A poet must see what others do not see, must see more deeply than other people and a mathematician must do the same." Emmy Noether, possibly the most creative of these heroines of the intellect, would have agreed.

Patricia Rothman, who carried out research for the booklet as part of a recruiting drive at UCL, also agrees. "Mathematics is not only for men," she says. "We must continue the fine tradition of women like Emmy Noether." As Mary Whitney wrote: "I hope when I get to Heaven I shall not find women playing second fiddle."

Women in the History of Mathematics is available from UCL, tel: 0171 391 1620

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Victoria Neumark

Latest stories