Last fall I wrote about the Abel Prize ceremony because I was intrigued by the maze constructed for the occasion. I didn’t intend to cover every winner, but I thought that Karen Uhlenbeck becoming the first woman to receive the honor warranted attention. Her work laid the foundation for a whole new branch of mathematics–geometric analysis–and she also provided critical tools to mathematical physicists for working with the Yang-Mills equations, which are central to the Standard Model of particle physics. Beyond her mathematical contributions, she also mentored other women mathematicians and was involved in developing new programs for educators and mathematicians to train and collaborate.
Amidst all her accomplishments, one interesting element of her biography is that she originally wanted to be a physicist but found that laboratory work did not suit her. As a result, she changed majors to mathematics. Nevertheless, she wound up making substantial contributions to physics as well. I think it’s important to share stories like that. It is easy for students to have a narrow understanding of career options and how they might contribute to a particular field. When something disrupts their ability to follow that specific track, it can be disorienting and disheartening. Helping students (and all of us) see the broader and richer opportunities to contribute seems like it could alleviate those feelings.
Uhlenbeck’s story and her observations about fluctuating numbers of female colleagues also made me think back to articles I read around the recent publication of The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon. Rippon, a neuroscientist, rejects various headline-making claims about neurobiological differences between the brains of men and women. She considers any measurable behavioral or cognitive differences the product of external influences. For example, steering boys disproportionately towards LEGO blocks provides them easier and more opportunities to develop certain cognitive skills compared to kids who don’t play with those or comparable toys.
I think we should return to Rippon’s book more directly in a future post(s); I would like to be more familiar with the details. For now, I think it is relevant to the questions one might have about why the Abel Prize has never gone to a woman before in its 16 year history and whether that kind of trend warrants balancing activities. If we randomly sampled mathematics faculty, or authors of mathematics publications, we probably wouldn’t get an even male-female distribution. If that’s the case, then of course the Abel committee will select more men because they have more to choose, right? But then we can ask why there are fewer women mathematics professors, or graduate students, or undergraduates, and so on, until we ultimately get to the issues Rippon is dealing with. Do those distributions have some fundamentally biological cause or not? Let’s say we take a fairly agnostic stance, that the evidence has failed to definitively show root biological causes rather than that there is clear evidence of external causes. Even then, I think it makes sense to assume we are not efficiently identifying all the potential future Karen Uhlenbecks, and thus take steps to improve opportunities for them to be discovered or discover themselves.
A couple of other prizes were given out recently that you might be interested in. Physicist Marcelo Gleiser won the Templeton Prize for his work beyond the sciences in exploring the spiritual dimension of life. Gleiser describes himself as agnostic; many religious believers appreciate that he does not use science to insist religion is false. Meanwhile, Kenyan Peter Tabichi, a science teacher and a Franciscan friar, was named the winner of the Global Teacher Prize. He’s been teaching science to overflowing classes short on books and technology in Rift Valley. I look forward to hearing one day about his students winning an Abel Prize, a Nobel Prize, etc.
Speaking of livestreaming, I will be part of a livestream conversation on Saturday (3/30) starting at 7pm EDT. Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity is hosting the conversation at Ultimate Comics Durham. Joining us are Duke physics professor Dr. Al Goshaw and campus minister Will Rose. See the Facebook event for livestream details.