Pi Day is coming in two days on March 14! If you were hoping for a secret family pie recipe, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Sadly, I come from a family tree of terrible bakers who are too impatient to read and follow recipes correctly. Instead, on this day of all things math, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to celebrate our shared love of 3.14…and Women’s History Month by honoring some of the notable women in the field of mathematics.
Augusta Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was an English mathematician known for her work on the Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer proposed by her collaborator Charles Babbage. She is regarded as one of the first computer programmers for recognizing that the computer had application beyond just calculations and also for authoring one of the first algorithms that could be executed on such a computer in her notes. The Analytical Engine was proposed in 1837, but the first general purpose computer would not be built until 1941, making her theoretical advancements in the field even more impressive.
Sofie Kowalevski (1850-1891) was a mathematician who had a career marked by firsts. She became the first woman to earn a doctorate in math at a time when women couldn’t attend university in her native Russia, be appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe and become an editor of a scientific journal. Her work paper on partial differential equations contains what is known as the Cauchy-Kowalevski theorem.
Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright (1900-1998) was a British mathematician that pioneered the concepts known as chaos theory and the butterfly effect. After graduating from Oxford in 1923, Mary continued her doctoral work at Cambridge where she would spend most of her career working on new mathematical approaches to problem solving and exploring complex proofs and theorems. She was honored with damehood by the Queen for her many contributions to the field of mathematics.
Joan Elisabeth Lowther Murray (1917 – 1996) was an English cryptanalyst and mathematician who was recruited as an Enigma code-breaker at Bletchley Park during WWII. Despite being denied a full degree from Cambridge due to her gender, Joan became the only female practitioner of Banburismus, a cryptanalytic process developed by her friend and collaborator Alan Turing. Joan and her team were instrumental in massive reductions to supplies lost to German U-boat attacks.
Boundary breakers of NASA
Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) earned her B.A. in Mathematics in 1942 and went on to become the first Black supervisor at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the early form of NASA. She led the West Area Computing Unit, the team of all-Black women mathematicians that would go on to change NASA for decades to come including Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. As computational work shifted to early computers, Dorothy became an expert FORTRAN programmer and contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was one of three students to integrate West Virginia State College when she earned her dual degrees in Mathematics and French in 1937. In her impressive 33-year career at Langley, Katherine made numerous contributions to the space race including being the final signoff on the calculations for John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 space flight. Confidence in Katherine’s math abilities was so high, her hand calculations were used to confirm the computer-generated calculations at Glenn’s request as part of his pre-flight checklist. In 2015, at the age of 97, Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Mary W. Jackson
Mary W. Jackson (1921-2005) earned degrees in both Mathematics and Physical Science from the Hampton Institute in 1942. Mary worked as a math teacher and in several roles for the military before finally landing at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section as a part of Dorothy Vaughan’s team in 1951. Mary is best known for becoming NASA’s first Black woman engineer after successfully fighting segregation to complete the advanced coursework required for the promotion to join the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel engineering team. After 34 years with NASA and many awards Mary retired in 1985.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale in 1930, and taught math at Vassar College before joining the Navy and rising to the rank of Rear Admiral. Grace is known for being a pioneer of computer programming when she became one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I in 1944. During her time at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, Grace led the department for automatic programming releasing some of the first compiled languages. She also helped create machine-independent languages that inspired the COBOL language. In 1991, Grace received the National Medal of Technology and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Karen Uhlenbeck (1942-present) earned her Ph.D. in 1964 and went on to found the field of geometric analysis that uses differential geometry to study the solutions to differential equations. In addition to her role as a professor, Karen is also the co-founder of the Women and Mathematics Program at the Institute for Advanced Study to help recruit more women in mathematics. In 2019, Karen became the first woman to win the Abel Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics, for her work in geometry and mathematical physics.
Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017) was an Iranian mathematician who excelled from an early age in national and international mathematics competitions. After earning her B.S. in Mathematics, she went on to earn her Ph.D. from Harvard and a research fellowship at Princeton. Mirzakhani made several contributions to the theory of moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces. In 2014, Maryam became the first woman and first Iranian to receive the Fields Medal for her work on hyperbolic geometry, a non-Euclidean geometry used to explore concepts of space and time.
These are just a few notable women that have made their mark on the field of mathematics past and present. We recognize that there are many amazing contributors working to evolve and innovate the study and application of mathematics. To those yet unsung heroes, our heartfelt appreciation and gratitude.