Women of Modern Mathematics

A few weeks ago, IBM premiered their new iPad app, The Minds of Modern Mathematics. This is an interactive timeline spanning from 1000 to 1950, with bios of famous mathematicians and their important results. Many of you have seen a poster version of this in your respective math department, although the poster version (at least the original one) was called The Men of Modern Mathematics. The poster is even included with the app. In this post, I will write a little about what I like and don’t like about this app.

First of all, the fact that it’s an interactive timeline is actually very cool. It puts the history of mathematics into a very nice visual format, and helps with putting mathematics into a larger historical context. For each mathematician, there is a short bio, and then links to the Wikipedia pages related to that mathematician and to Wolfram alpha. There are also lots of images related to important mathematics from the time period. On the top, there is a button that allows you to see the math timeline in parallel to a timeline of important historical events. I must say that my favorite thing is the old IBM Mathematics Peep Shows which are just excellent. They were also very hard to find until now and including these with the app was a brilliant idea.

My main problem with the app is the representation of women in mathematics. The only woman represented in the timeline (and I guess the reason for changing it from “men” to “minds”) is Emmy Noether. Even more unfortunate is the fact that she is described as follows: “She was fat, rough, and loud, but so kind, humorous and sociable that all who knew her loved her.” I just don’t understand why there has to be any description of her physical appearance. As far as I can tell, and I think I looked through all the bios, none of the men get any sort of physical description. I guess maybe if Tycho Brahe had made it onto the app he may have been described as “He was gross to look at because he didn’t have a nose, but he was such a nice guy people usually forgot about it after a while”. I still would not be OK with that (but lacking a nose is certainly more peculiar than being “fat, rough, and loud”, although I guess Gaston Julia also didn’t have a nose).

And then there is the fact that there is only one woman on the list. I know there weren’t that many women mathematicians before 1950, but there still were some notable ones that I feel were left out. For example, Sophie Germain, Sofia Kovalevskaya, and Maria Agnesi. I am not advocating a “let’s include all the women because there aren’t very many” policy, but I believe at least these three deserve a bit more attention.

Anyway, I feel like the app has a lot of potential, and it is visually stunning and quite educational, but they definitely could have been smarter about the inclusion of women. So, dear readers, have you seen this app? What do you think? What was your reaction to the description of Noether? Can you think of other female mathematicians you could add to the list? Sound off in the comments section below.

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yyy5 Responses to Women of Modern Mathematics

  1. Equalist says:

    I’m an equalist, and believe people should have equal opportunities. So if Maria Agnesi is to be included in the list, so should anybody who was as influential or prolific or who contributed as much as Maria Agnesi.

    A better complaint than “not enough women” would be “why is it ‘modern’ if it only goes up to 1950?” If it’s supposed to be about *modern* math, it would be better to go from 1950 to 2012, and in that case the “not enough women” problem would solve itself, with no need for cherry-picking which, itself, is sexist against both men (for obvious reasons) and women too (for devaluing their contributions and leading people to assume they’re there for political reasons).

  2. Michelle says:

    Are they going to update it? Because 1950s was a loooong time ago. There are a fair number of both men and women who should be added if you take it up even to the 1970s. (I nominate Grothendieck for men and Julia Robinson for women, at least as a start.)

    It’s a bit disingenuous to call it “Minds of *Modern* Mathematics” if it taps out at 1950. I think the original poster was made in 1960, so their update should go at least through 2000, yes? It would be very naturally inclusive if they did that…

  3. Chris Sinclair says:

    I’ve always been rather distrubed by that entry. There even used to be some slur along the lines of her students calling her Der Noether (or something similar), is that still there?

    I have an original copy of the “Men of …” on my wall in my office (at home), and while I do find it very inspiring, I also see it as a misogynistic window into the not-too-distant past.

  4. Peter says:

    I share your criticism. But it does not surprise me since the app is designed as a reproduction of (one part of) the legendary Charles&Ray Eames exhibition from 1961.

    What makes it especially annoying is that the app was created to honor Ray’s centennial.

  5. JoAnne says:

    Thanks for bringing this app — and the old poster — to our attention. It is important for us to keep thinking about who succeeds in mathematics and why.
    In my blog “Intersections — Poetry with Mathematics” (at http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com) I also address concerns about women in mathematics and, in particular, the treatment of Emmy Noether (at http://poetrywithmathematics.blogspot.com/2010/03/poetry-of-logical-ideas.html).

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