Tag Archives: mathematics

Wednesday Geek Woman: Gertrude Blanch, algorithm design pioneer

This is a guest post by Beth. Beth is a C++ programmer outside of Boston, MA.

A pioneer in algorithm design for both human and mechanical computers, Gertrude Blanch (February 2, 1897–January 1, 1996) ran the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City and continued to work on algorithm optimizations for mathematical questions until her death in 1996.

An early pioneer in numerical analysis and computation, she received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in algebraic geometry in 1935. She published over thirty papers on functional approximation, numerical analysis and Mathieu functions and became a pivotal figure during the transition from human computers to mechanical, digital computers.

Having run a team of 450 human computers at Mathematical Tables Project in New York City she was in an excellent position to discuss the construction of algorithms during the early days of punch-card machines. In her interview with the Smithsonian she discusses constructing parallel processing algorithms such that the non-mathematicians employed as computers could calculate the tables without understanding the complex math involved, and the use of smoothing function to produce checksums that allowed manuscripts to be proofread for typing errors. Later on she continued with mathematical research, finding ways to make up for mathematical deficiencies in computers designed for industry and quantifying practical considerations when investigating theoretical mathematics on computing machines. She was one of the three women to attend the 1948 customer conference of IBM computer customers. Essentially she stood at the intersection between theory and practicality at a tipping point in the history of mathematics.

She was at one point denied a security clearance after World War II due to suspicions that she might be a communist. In addition to her sister being a member of the Communist party, evidence offered against her included that she had never married or had children. When a hearing was called, her name was cleared and she later became a mathematician and instructor at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in California. She was elected a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1962 and was given the Federal Woman’s Award from President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Wikipedia: Gertrude Blanch
If you have access to IEEE Annels of History, you can read more about here in a piece they did: Gertrude Blanch of the Mathematical Tables Project.
Her papers are available at the Charles Babbage Institute.
You can read the Smithsonian oral history interview with her.

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Vi Hart’s Math class doodles

Despite the fact that I grew up to earn a degree in mathematics, I remember math classes in my elementary school as pretty much the dullest subject on earth. Which is probably one of the reasons I love Vi’s doodles so much. Experiencing mathematics through doodling while bored seems way more fun than paying attention did. Here’s a video of binary tree and fractal doodles:

Check out the other neat stuff (including more in the doodle series) at vihart.com.

Wednesday Geek Woman: Emmy Noether

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are currently open.

This is a guest post.

Emmy Noether was one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th Century. Noether’s (first) theorem, which states that for every symmetry in a system there is a corresponding conservation law, is fundamental to modern theoretical physics, and she was one of the first to study topology algebraically.

Like many German Jewish academics, Noether left Germany after the Nazi party came into power, and spent much of her life in the US. Noether could not get a paid job for most of her life due to sexism. She worked for free at various universities while living frugally on an allowance paid to her by her family, and even later in life when she earned a salary she continued to live a frugal lifestyle. As a teacher she was known both for her insistence on strict mathematical rigour, and for her attentive and nurturing attitude towards her students. She was also known for being completely unconcerned about her appearance, sometimes lecturing in food-stained clothing, or with messy hair (not unlike her friend and colleague Albert Einstein.)

Wikipedia: Emmy Noether

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Florence Nightingale pioneered data visualisation of statistics.

From Diagrams that changed the world (BBC News):

One of the first to use the visual world to navigate numbers was Florence Nightingale.

Although better known for her contributions to nursing, her greatest achievements were mathematical. She was the first to use the idea of a pie chart to represent data.

Florence Nightingale's Crimea diagrams Nightingale had discovered that the majority of deaths in the Crimea were due to poor sanitation rather than casualties in battle. She wanted to persuade government of the need for better hygiene in hospitals.

She realised though that just looking at the numbers was unlikely to impress ministers. But once those numbers were translated into a picture – her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East – the message could not be ignored. A good diagram, Nightingale discovered, is certainly worth 1,000 numbers.

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Wednesday Geek Woman: Émilie du Châtelet

This is a guest post by Megan. Megan is a life-long geek and feminist currently working towards a PhD in Chemistry.

Émilie du Châtelet is one of the most under-celebrated scientists of the Age of Enlightenment. Born in 1706 in France, she received an unparalleled education at the encouragement of her father. By 12 she was fluent in French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek. She continued to study mathematics and physics throughout her adult life, and used her mathematical skills to win extra money through gambling. After her death, Voltaire wrote that Émilie was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”

She translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French, but her greatest contribution to science came from proving one of Newton’s theories wrong. Newton believed the kinetic energy of a moving object was proportional to its velocity while Liebniz proposed the energy was proportional to the velocity squared. Émilie du Châtelet experimentally proved the energy was proportional to the square of the velocity. Émilie’s dedication to understanding the physical world and eagerness to use experiments to investigate physical theory make her an important figure in scientific history.

Wikipedia: Émilie du Châtelet
physicsworld.com: Emilie du Châtelet: the genius without a beard
NOVA: Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749)

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Quick hit: Women = Men when it comes to math skills

Females Are Equal to Males in Math Skills, Large Study Shows

These studies, all published in English between 1990 and 2007, looked at people from grade school to college and beyond. A second portion of the new study examined the results of several large, long-term scientific studies, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In both cases, Hyde says, the difference between the two sexes was so close as to be meaningless.

But despite these findings, we still may be a ways away from the day when I can quit doing back of the napkin demonstrations about gender and math ability:

The idea that both genders have equal math abilities is widely accepted among social scientists, Hyde adds, but word has been slow to reach teachers and parents, who can play a negative role by guiding girls away from math-heavy sciences and engineering. “One reason I am still spending time on this is because parents and teachers continue to hold stereotypes that boys are better in math, and that can have a tremendous impact on individual girls who are told to stay away from engineering or the physical sciences because ‘Girls can’t do the math.’”

(Read the rest of the article here.)

The spammers, united, will never be defeated

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

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Death by a thousand links (20th April, 2010)

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Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

It’s not a gender issue, it’s a linkspam issue (25th March, 2010)

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Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Ada Lovelace Day Roundup

Here at geekfeminism.org we admire many women within the Technology and Science fields. We’ve gathered some short tributes to the women who inspire us:

Melissa: On a warm spring night in 2002 Bali was rocked by the bombing of a few popular nightclubs. One result of this was a lot of survivors with really bad burns — as much as 90-something percent of their bodies. Ouch!

It was at this point that I, and the rest of the world, first heard of Dr Fiona Wood; a British plastic surgeon working in Perth, Australia. Dr Wood had pioneered the development of “Spray-on skin”, a grafting technique that cultures cells in a suspension formula. This technique substantially reduced the delay to the first graft and hence drastically reduced the risk of infection and scarring. While the technique is patented, the licensing royalties are fed in to a fund that supports further research in to burns treatments.

Mary: I found out about Fan Chung in Paul Hoffman’s The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul ErdÅ’s and the Search for Mathematical Truth; Chung and her husband Ron Graham were two of ErdÅ’s’s closest collaborators. Hoffman tells a great story about how when Chung had finished, and come first in, her PhD qualifying exams at the University of Pennsylvania, her eventual PhD advisor gave her a textbook on Ramsey theory to browse and she came back and explained that she’d improved one of the proofs. That was a core part of her PhD dissertation, completed in a week. Those kinds of stories are told about the best mathematicians.

Chung’s website has a copy of a chapter about her in Claudia Henrion’s Women in mathematics: the addition of difference. Among other things it talks about her move to the United States from Taiwan for her graduate work, and her thoughts on having a child while at graduate school.

Mackenzie: I can’t think of any big world-famous type names that aren’t obvious things like Marie Curie or Grace Hopper. Instead, my mind keeps drifting to the book Three Cups of Tea and how big of a difference Jahan, a young woman from Korphe in rural Northern Pakistan, will make. She was one of the first girls in the village to receive any education at all. Then, she went off to study at a big school in Skardu to become their town’s first medically-trained health worker. She changed her mind. She decided to become a full doctor and start the first hospital in that area. I don’t know if she’s succeeded yet, but I’m sure she must be an inspiration to girls from neighboring villages, and she’s a shining star in a part of the world where a woman’s rights and opportunities are often so limited. (PS: to support building more schools for girls in poor rural villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, donate to the Central Asia Institute)

Elsewhere: some of us have also made Ada Lovelace Day posts on other blogs: