On Being a Woman Who Loves Math
Catherine Chung Finds Inspiration in the Lives of Otherwise Forgotten Mathematicians
All my life I’ve been aware of the disheartening fact that as a society, we generally find intellect off-putting in women, and do our best to squash it. Growing up, I found it exasperating, but also often went along with it—sometimes not even aware that I was doing so. When I was in middle school, I was invited to enroll in an accelerated math program at a nearby university where I would take four years of high school math in two, starting in eighth grade, which was also the year Teen Talk Barbie came out—she is mostly remembered for uttering the phrase, “Math class is tough!”
I’d grown up in a household where mathematics was considered the loftiest peak in the hallowed realm of pure reason, but Barbie was just pointing out what I already knew, which was that math wasn’t cool, and girls who were good at it (or even worse, liked it) were weird, and doomed to social purgatory. I enrolled in the math program, but with a dismissive attitude, and I told anyone who asked that I was doing it to be finished with math early, to wash my hands of it, so that I’d never have to take it again.
By the time I got to college, I had convinced myself of my contempt for the subject, and forgotten the pleasure I’d once felt when a problem came right. I would probably have gone my whole life believing math wasn’t for me if I hadn’t met a rather insufferable upperclassman immediately upon arriving, who showed me his real number analysis textbook and casually declared it’d be too tough for the likes of me. Needless to say, I took the course, and unexpectedly fell in love—not with the boy (thank god) but with math. In that class, I discovered that abstract math was mysterious and beautiful, elegant and poetic, and I fell for it headlong.
Still, it wasn’t until after I’d left my studies behind and published my first novel that I happened upon an article about five influential women mathematicians in history. Mathematics has historically been lacking in (and some would say outright hostile toward) women, and I was astounded to read for the first time about these women who persevered in the face of immense societal, familial, and institutional discouragement to make major contributions in the field. As an undergraduate I was often only one of two girls in the classes I took, but these women had forced their way into classrooms when women weren’t even allowed in universities.
There was Sophie Germain, who taught herself Greek and Latin to read her brother’s textbooks, and then posed as a schoolboy to get lecture notes on number theory from a leading mathematician. She went on to win France’s major mathematics prize and become a pioneer of elasticity theory. Sofia Kovalevskaya married her tutor in Russia so that he could take her to Germany where she’d be able to study math, and in addition to major contributions to the field, became the first woman to earn a doctorate in math and the first woman to become a full professor in Europe.
Then there was Emmy Noether, who was championed by Einstein and Hilbert, did far-reaching math that undergirded Einstein’s theory of relativity, and proved a theorem about the conservation of angular momentum that is one of the foundations of quantum mechanics.
She also mentored an entire generation of mathematicians, and is considered one of the founders of modern algebra, though her career sparked protest everywhere she went. Faculty in the neighboring philosophy and law departments at The University Göttingen, for instance, insisted it would be the end of higher education if a woman was allowed to teach there, and while the mathematics department was successful in bringing her on, she was also forced to teach without pay, under a man’s name.
As I learned more about her, I became increasingly aware of striking similarities between her time and ours—women, for the first time allowed to pursue higher education in Germany and attend universities, contributed to breathtaking advances in science and technology and unprecedented breakthroughs, but this, coupled with other forms of social progress, was pitted against an anti-intellectual and socially restrictive backlash. A catastrophic rise in xenophobia and the persecution of Jews and other “outsiders” ultimately culminated in Nazism and a devastating war. (Since beginning this book, alas, the similarities have only become more pointed.)
The Tenth Muse begins after Emmy Noether’s time, and deals with the legacy of that history, exploring the life of a woman mathematician in America in the aftermath of all that. What, I wondered, would she be allowed, and how would she be limited by who she was? To what extent would she have to fight those limitations, and to what extent would she be able to transcend them? And how would she locate herself: where would she think she came from? What would her intellectual lineage be, and how would she lay claim to it?
What I discovered as I wrote this book was that although my intention had always been to write about a brilliant woman, a genius even, at every turn my subconscious impulse was to tone down her intellect. At first I made her a failed mathematician and had to go back and revise that—there were so many reasons she couldn’t or wouldn’t succeed, that the more interesting story, I realized, would be how she would succeed, and what it would take and what it might cost her.
By a stroke of great luck, I was invited to spend some time at the Institute for Advanced Study—where Einstein had brought Emmy Noether when they both escaped Nazi Germany—and I met Karen Uhlenbeck, a great mathematician and true pioneer who recently became the first woman to win the Abel Prize in mathematics, won the MacArthur genius grant in mathematics, and was only the second woman after Emmy Noether to give a plenary address at the International Congress of Mathematicians.
Famously generous and passionately invested in her field and in encouraging young women interested in mathematics, she founded the influential Women and Mathematics program at IAS: I had read about brilliant mathematicians of the past, but here was an undisputed giant, standing before me in real life. Meeting her and confronting the sheer force of her mind and will was a tremendously humbling and formative experience for me.What I discovered as I wrote this book was that although my intention had always been to write about a brilliant woman, a genius even, at every turn my subconscious impulse was to tone down her intellect.
Also at IAS, I had a conversation with the physicist Freeman Dyson, who over dinner one evening told me that he’d attended a lecture Mary Cartwright gave on Chaos theory in the 1940s, a full 20 years before its official “discovery.” He said when he asked her about it, she replied that she never cared too much about credit, treating it all as something of a joke. I still think about that—about the generosity of Cartwright and Uhlenbeck, and of Noether—who famously gave her proofs away to her students. I think about how much they gave, and how hard they worked, and about the obstacles they faced. I think about the fierce clarity of their intellects.
These encounters made me think about how important legacy is, how hungrily I had been searching for an intellectual genealogy for my narrator, but also, in some sense, for myself. In the end, I realized I needed to challenge and grow my own imagination for this book, that the limitations I set out to critique also existed in my own mind. I had to create a narrator who saw past those limitations, and to learn how to see past them myself in order to create a future that was large enough and rich enough for her.
I had to imagine the possibilities that are usually denied women, and in the act of imagining a woman who by luck or genius or sheer perseverance rejects that denial—a woman who insists, above all, in being free in her mind—I found that she had opened a new door for me, that I could walk through, as well.
Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse is out now from ECCO, an imprint of HarperCollins.