Tag Archives: women in mathematics

Wednesday Geek Woman: Melba Roy Mouton

Melba Roy Mouton, standing with computing equipment at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Melba Roy Mouton, NASA mathematician, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Image courtesy NASA, 1960.

Melba Roy Mouton graduated from Howard University in 1950 with a Master’s in Mathematics. By 1960, she was working for NASA, where she headed up a team of mathematicians who tracked Echo satellites in Earth’s orbit.

During her time at NASA, she served as head of the Data Systems Division’s Advanced Orbital Programming Branch, Head of the Mission and Trajectory Analysis Division’s Program Systems Branch, and Assistant Chief of Research Programmes, Trajectory and Geodynamics Division. She received an Exceptional Performance Award and NASA’s Apollo Achievement Award.

She retired in 1973, and passed away in 1990, at the age of 61.

Over on Vintage Black Glamour, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist who did a post-doc at NASA, describes Mouton’s work:

[W]hen we launch satellites into orbit, there are a lot of things to keep track of. We have to ensure that gravitational pull from other bodies, such as other satellites, the moon, etc. don’t perturb and destabilize the orbit. These are extremely hard calculations to do even today, even with a machine-computer. So, what she did was extremely intense, difficult work. The goal of the work, in addition to ensuring satellites remained in a stable orbit, was to know where everything was at all times. So they had to be able to calculate with a high level of accuracy.

Sources:

Closeup of a slide staged on a microscope stand

Cultural Forces in Geek Inspiration

An interesting survey by an Indiana University science education researcher and Scientific American reported the following about what sparks people’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields:

Based on data from a randomized sample of universities and online volunteers who completed a survey, men and women who pursue STEM degrees tend to become interested in science in elementary school. When asked which people and experiences helped to spark their interest, women were more likely than men to select a teacher, a class at school, solving math problems and spending time outdoors, whereas men were more influenced by tinkering, building and reading. As men and women enter college, passion for the field far outweighs all other influences as the main reason for their persistence.

They have some nice graphical representations of their results as well, but it’s worth adding a bit of cultural context here.

“Tinkering” and “building” represent a broad class of activities that boys are pushed toward and girls are pushed away from. These activities can not only provide inspiration for STEM degrees, but also function as practice for laboratory work and problem solving, which is to say as practice for STEM degrees and careers. When Lego sets aimed at boys encourage more creativity and agency than Lego sets aimed at girls, there are real consequences down the line. It is great that so many men are lead to STEM degrees from tinkering and building. But unless we accept the lone tinkerer as an archetype for any gender, this path to a geeky career will be less likely for most women.

Two of the stronger factors for women entering STEM degrees, “a teacher” and “a class at school”, comprise structural external encouragement. It makes perfect sense that this would be more important for the under-represented gender in any field. If a girl doesn’t see people like her in a certain career, she may not consider it seriously as an option, unless she is directed there by something external like a class or a teacher. The good news here is that external factors can make a difference in bringing people to STEM careers, especially under-represented groups.

The largest percentage of respondents (38%) said that the drive to be in STEM came from “self”, and by the time college rolls around, “passion for the field” is the most popular reason to persist (three times as popular as the next three reasons). But still, these self-directed passionate scientists add up to less than half the total! For the rest of the group, and if we want to increase the number of women in STEM fields, it’s critical to have a culture that values science and mentors that seek out and encourage potential scientists.

Linkspammers of Catan (first fortnight of April linkspam)

Enjoy!

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

railway-museum-lamp

Prepping for April Fool’s Day linkspam

The photo has nothing to do with the title, except that we are the lamp of knowledge and truth and anti-sexism shining into the dark corners of ignorance! Or maybe not. Anyway, linkspam:

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Black and white photo of Fan Chung in 1987

Wednesday Geek Woman: Fan Chung, leading mathematician

This post appeared on Lecta for Ada Lovelace Day 2011 and is an expanded version of a post at Geek Feminism last year.

“Don’t be intimidated!… I have seen many people get discouraged because they see mathematics as full of deep incomprehensible theories. There is no reason to feel that way. In mathematics whatever you learn is yours and you build it up—one step at a time. It’s not like a real time game of winning and losing. You win if you are benefited from the power, rigor and beauty of mathematics. It is a big win if you discover a new principle or solve a tough problem.

Fan Chung

Black and white photo of Fan Chung in 1987Fan Chung is a leading mathematician, specialising in combinatorics and later graph theory. She is Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at UC San Diego.

I first heard of 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 Herbert Wilf 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 has worked both in academia and in industry, having spent twenty years at Bell Labs and Bellcore in both information technology and mathematics before returning to the University of Pennsylvania, where she did her doctorate. After her time in industry she is deeply concerned with mathematical breadth, and is known for her “nose” for problems that cross several subfields.

Many mathematicians would hate to marry someone in the profession. They fear their relationship would be too competitive. In our case, not only are we both mathematicians, we both do work in the same areas. So we can understand and appreciate what the other is working on, and we can work on things together-and sometimes make good progress.

Fan Chung, describing her relationship with husband Ron Graham

If my count is right, Chung’s publication list shows 79 papers co-authored with Ron Graham. I’ve always admired stories of professionally companionate marrages: even Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne can’t compete on those numbers.

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.

[Graduate school] is a wonderful time to have a child. You don’t have to attend classes; you only have to write your thesis.

Fan Chung

Hrm, yes, well. Perhaps I will give that advice in 20 years time. Perhaps not…

References

Creative Commons License
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Sugar and spice, and everything linkspam (31st July, 2011)

  • 18 year old German woman Lisa Sauermann has just won the International Mathematics Olympiad (contested between talented high school students) with a perfect score of 42. This is Sauermann’s fifth medal, four of them gold and one silver, the best series of performances ever. (Some sources say she’s the first recipient of four golds, there have actually been two others.)
  • BU Today reviews Project Artmesis, a five week summer computing program for high school girls that has just wound up.
  • Please Sir, I Want Some More: LGBTQs need more and deserve more. We need escapism just like our cis straight brothers and sisters. We need to be portrayed in roles we wouldn’t be expected to be in. (See comments for why this link was removed.) (For that matter, new to this linkspammer: the Gay YA site where this appeared.)
  • Help Us Find These 1970s AT&T Engineers: In this 1975 AT&T film, five female AT&T engineers are profiled. The film starts with male attitudes towards women working as engineers. There are no surprises there… What’s most interesting, though, is that AT&T apparently cannot locate any of these five — they (and I) would like to ask followup questions and learn how things have changed since 1975.
  • Open Source Community, Simplified: The Bugzilla community’s secrets. Not specifically feminist advice, but advice that will help create a woman-friendly coding space.
  • Erase me: And, basically, it comes down to authors wanting either something exotic or inclusion cookies without putting in any real effort or respect into their characters or having any awareness of the tropes and stereotypes they are tapping into… So I’ve finally come down on saying – stop. Erase me. No, really. I’d much rather be erased than tokenised or stereotyped.
  • Girls Go Geek… Again! and Normalizing Female Computer Programmers in the ’60s: This article appeared in a 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan and quotes computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the field, discussing why programming is a perfect fit for women — by drawing partly on gender stereotypes by assuming women are naturals at programming because they’re patient and pay attention to details…

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive!

This is a guest post by Lindsey Kuper. Lindsey Kuper does math and code and music and splatters it unceremoniously all over the Internet.

This post originally appeared at her blog and was linked from Restructure!’s comments.

I’m happy to see that the xkcd about “Zombie Marie Curie” has been making the rounds, because the “I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist” bit gives voice to my long-held frustration about the predictable and repetitive trotting-out of the same handful of historical women as the go-to examples of women in science.

Those women were amazing and groundbreaking, but to always focus the discussion around them to the exclusion of actual, living, breathing female scientists is to make actual, living, breathing female scientists feel even more invisible than we already sometimes do.

Here’s an example of what I mean: the first page of Flickr search results for “women scientists” is top-heavy with results from the Smithsonian’s “Women in Science” photo set, which consists entirely of black-and-white photos of women, most of whom died in the middle of the twentieth century sometime. Why not call that photo set “Pioneering Women in Science” — or, uh, maybe just “Women Scientists from the Age of Black-and-White Film Photography”, since there were women in science before that, too? To not show any contemporary scientists under the heading “Women in Science” is to pathologize and exoticize the idea of simultaneously being a woman and being a scientist, and that’s about the last thing scientists need.

I like Photos of Mathematicians. It’s exactly what it says on the tin — one person’s collection of photos of living, working mathematicians, many of whom are actual regular human beings who you might run into on the street. Some of the photos are of women. I wish that, instead of seeing Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace over and over, we saw them sometimes, or their counterparts in physics or CS. A color photo of a living person1 feels more immediately relevant than a painting or a black-and-white photo of an (un)dead person, even if the (un)dead person has more Nobel Prizes.


  1. There’s nothing special about the four photos I chose, aside from the fact that they are, as far as I can tell, of women. I hesitated about picking particular photos to link to, but I decided that sharing some photos of modern women mathematicians who are probably actually alive is important enough to me that I’m willing to risk being wrong about someone’s gender identification in the attempt.

Can you accomplish more with a female instructor?

I don’t get what the bit about Obama and Desperate Housewives at the start of this article from Slate entitled “Pscyh-out sexism” is trying to say, but the research summarized later sounds interesting. Here’s a quote about the first study:

The psychologists asked female students studying biology, chemistry, and engineering to take a very tough math test. All the students were greeted by a senior math major who wore a T-shirt displaying Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. For some volunteers, the math major was male. For others, the math major was female. This tiny tweak made a difference: Women attempted more questions on the tough math test when they were greeted by a female math major rather than a male math major. On psychological tests that measured their unconscious attitudes toward math, the female students showed a stronger self-identification with math when the math major who had greeted them was female. When they were greeted by the male math major, women had significantly higher negative attitudes toward math.

In the next study, they found that university-level women asked fewer questions in class and in office hours after a term with a male prof than they did after a term with a female one. And in the final study, they found that women had more confidence with a female teacher… even if tests showed that they were outperforming their male colleagues.

The latter two studies could be for reasons other than the gender of the teacher: previous studies have shown that although fewer women reach the level of prof, those who do tend to be exceptional so it might be their innate talents and not as much their gender that allows them to reach their students better. But still, it’s an interesting selection of research, and really speaks to why outreach from women’s groups like my local CU-WISE can be especially valuable! We do a variety of events for younger women including helping at summer camps, science fairs, and visiting schools.

So next time you wonder if it’s worth doing an outreach event, remember that your smiling face may be just what another young woman needs to get her to try that little bit harder!

This was originally written for the CU-WISE blog and has been altered slightly for GF.

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.

Creative Commons License
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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.

Continue reading