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Much ado About Noether

Calvin Smith tweeted this morning to tell us that today is International Women’s Day, and took the opportunity to remind his followers of some of the women in the mathematical sciences. Stealing his idea Following his lead, we thought we would write a post on the theme.

The Aperiodical is of course a pro-everybody enterprise all year round, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time to remind ourselves of the fact that women are just as capable as men of contributing to the field of maths. Incredibly, some people still don’t think this is the case!

So, without further ado, here’s a very quickly assembled list of:

A few women who did or do maths, off the tops of our heads (& Calvin’s)


Geometrix, preserver of the old Greek way of doing things, played by Rachel Weisz in a forgettable movie.

Florence Nightingale

Dataviz pioneer.

Caroline Herschel

Astronomer, first female scientist recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society

Mary Somerville

Translated Laplace, helped bring English maths out of its Newtonian rut.

Emmy Noether

Deserving of a Brad Neely hyperbole song. Intellectual heavyweight, owner of an adjective.

Ada, Countess Lovelace

You can count on this one!

Sophie Germain

You could say she’s… germain to this discussion?

Hazel Perfect

CP’s maths hero, translated Alexandroff’s An Introduction to the Theory of Groups.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral, writer of the first programming language compiler and stone-cold coolest woman in the US Navy.

Ingrid Daubechies

Officially (ish) the world’s highest-ranking mathematician.

Kathleen Ollerenshaw

Educational advisor to Thatcher, got her PhD without even writing a thesis, classy Dame (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

Thousands and thousands of ‘computers’

@BParkEd has tweeted to remind us that “around 80% of the folks at Bletchley Park during WWII were women”. The women at Bletchley Park were mainly not doing any maths though – while many were working as computers, most were collecting and translating messages.

Back in the day, before computers were machines that crunched numbers for us, computers were women that crunched numbers for (almost always) men. What they did wasn’t intellectually trivial, and was rarely acknowledged.

Additionally, women were often employed as amanuenses – many monographs from the early part of the twentieth century begin with a note thanking a female name for her work preparing the author’s handwritten notes for print.

It seems that for a long time, mathematically gifted women were relegated to translating mathematical works from other languages, e.g.:

  • Mary Somerville – Laplace into English
  • Eleanora Barbapiccola – Descartes into Italian
  • Hazel Perfect – Alexandroff into English
  • Ada Lovelace – while translating Menebrea’s memoir on Babbage’s analytical engine, wrote ‘notes’ consisting of effectively the first computer programs.


The LMS recently released its report ‘Advancing women in mathematics: good practice in UK university departments’, which we reported on the site. This has statistics on current numbers of women at different stages of the academic career and a discussion of what university departments can do in good practice.

Just under 20% of professors of mathematics in the UK are women, though almost half of all maths lecturers are female.

The next LMS Women in Maths Day will take place 18-19th April. Our page on this quotes:

The event provides an opportunity to meet and talk with women who are active and successful in mathematics. While this is an occasion particularly for women active in mathematics to get together, men are certainly not excluded from this event.

Not one woman has been awarded a Fields medal yet.

Links to further reading

International Women’s Day 2013.

Biographies of Women Mathematicians website.

Women in math project.

Wikipedia’s Category:Women mathematicians.

London Mathematical Society Women in Mathematics page.

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science by Margaret Alic.

4 Responses to “Much ado About Noether”

  1. Colin Beveridge Colin Beveridge

    One of my favourite maths quotes is from Landau: “I can testify that [Emmy Noether] is a great mathematician; that she is a woman, I cannot swear.”

  2. Avatar Christian Perfect

    I included Hazel Perfect in the list because, while she wasn’t an objectively notable mathematician, she’s the person who inspired me to do maths as a career. I might say some more about her in a future number of the All Squared podcast.


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