Pi Day: Celebrating Women in Math

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Trailblazing women in math

Every year on March 14th (3/14), people around the world gather in person and online to celebrate Pi Day.

What is pi? It is the answer when you divide any circle’s circumference by its diameter: approximately 3.14, a number often represented by the Greek letter π. 

Mathematicians have calculated over 62 trillion of pi’s digits and as far as they have been able to determine, they go on literally forever, with no pattern. 

But pi is just one of the fascinating mysteries of mathematics. Many other mathematical questions have enchanted our collective psyche – and some incredible individuals have pursued them. 

Maryam Mirzakhani and Riemann Surfaces

Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian mathematician who made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics and geometry. 

Born in 1977, Mirzakhani showed a remarkable talent for mathematics from a young age. She participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad multiple times, winning a gold medal in 1994 and a silver medal in 1995. She went on to study mathematics at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1999 and her master’s degree in 2000.

Mirzakhani then moved to the United States to pursue her doctoral degree in mathematics at Harvard University. She earned her Ph.D. in 2004 and went on to hold postdoctoral positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Clay Mathematics Institute before joining the faculty at Stanford University in 2008.

Mirzakhani’s research focused on the geometry and dynamics of surfaces, particularly in the area of Riemann Surfaces. She made groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of moduli spaces, which are mathematical spaces that describe the possible shapes of complex structures such as surfaces or curves.

In recognition of her work, Mirzakhani received numerous awards and honours, culminating in her receiving the Fields Medal in 2014. She was the first woman and the first Iranian to receive the award. 

Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and died in July 2017, at the age of 40. She is remembered as a dedicated teacher and mentor for her tireless work to promote mathematics education and encourage young women to pursue careers in the field.

Katherine Johnson and Orbital Mechanics

Katherine Johnson was one of the key figures in the United States space program during the Space Race. 

Born in 1918, Johnson showed an exceptional talent for mathematics at a young age and began attending high school at the age of 10. She graduated at the top of her class at the age of 14 and went on to attend West Virginia State College, where she earned degrees in mathematics and French.

After graduation, Johnson began working as a teacher before joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She worked as a “computer,” performing complex calculations by hand.

Johnson’s work at NASA was instrumental in the success of the United States space program. She performed calculations for the first human spaceflight by Alan Shepard, the first American to orbit the Earth by John Glenn, and the Apollo 11 moon landing. Her calculations helped ensure the safety and success of these missions.

In addition to her work at NASA, Johnson was a dedicated teacher and mentor. She worked to promote education and encourage young people, especially women and underrepresented minorities, to pursue careers in mathematics and science.

Johnson received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, which is the highest civilian honour in the United States. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018.

Katherine Johnson died in February 2020, at the age of 101. Her legacy as a pioneering mathematician and an inspiring figure in the United States space program continues to inspire and motivate mathematicians, scientists, and students today.

Neena Gupta and the Zariski Cancellation Problem

Neena Gupta is a renowned mathematician and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. She was born in Punjab, India, and completed her undergraduate and postgraduate studies in mathematics at Panjab University in Chandigarh before going on to obtain her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in New York.

Gupta has made significant contributions to the field of algebraic geometry throughout her career. Her most notable work has been on the Zariski Cancellation Problem, a long-standing question in algebraic geometry that asks whether certain algebraic varieties can be “cancelled” in algebraic equations.

In addition to her research work, Gupta is also a dedicated teacher and mentor. She has supervised numerous Ph.D. students and has taught courses on algebraic geometry and other topics at IIT Delhi and other universities around the world.

Gupta’s contributions to mathematics have been widely recognized. She has been awarded several prestigious honours and awards, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Mathematical Sciences in 2018, which is the highest scientific award in India. She was also elected as a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences in 2019.

Gupta is a strong advocate for promoting diversity and inclusion in mathematics and science. She has worked to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in these fields and has also helped to create opportunities for them to succeed.

Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright and Chaos Theory

Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright was a British mathematician who made significant contributions to the field of mathematics, particularly in the areas of differential equations and chaos theory

Born in 1900, Cartwright grew up in a family that valued education and intellectual pursuits. Her father was a schoolteacher, and her mother was a suffragette who had studied at Cambridge University. Cartwright attended the Oxford High School for Girls, where she excelled in mathematics and physics.

In 1919, Cartwright entered St. Hugh’s College at Oxford University to study mathematics. She graduated with a first-class degree in 1923 and then completed her master’s degree in 1925. She earned her doctorate in 1930 for her thesis on “Integral Functions of Order Less Than One.”

In the 1950s, Cartwright turned her attention to the emerging field of chaos theory. She collaborated with mathematician J.E. Littlewood to study the behaviour of iterated functions, which are now known as the Cartwright-Littlewood theorems. Cartwright’s work on chaos theory was ahead of its time and laid the groundwork for future research in the field.

Cartwright was the first woman to be appointed to a mathematics professorship at Oxford University in 1947. She was also the first woman to be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1948. She continued to work in mathematics until her death in 1998 at the age of 97.

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