15 10 / 2013
A Day to Remember the First Computer Programmer Was a Woman
In 1842, Ada Lovelace, known as the “enchantress of numbers,” wrote the first computer program. Fast-forward 171 years to today (which happens to be Ada Lovelace Day, for highlighting women in science, technology, engineering and math), and computer programming is dominated by men. Women sof…
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19 8 / 2013
Émilie du Châtelet 1706- 1749
Émilie du Châtelet was a French mathematician and physicist. She showed an aptitude for language and math early in life and pursued her studies in an atypical way for women. She quickly mastered four languages and did a substantial amount of work in mathematics. She translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, which is still the standard French translation. The work includes her commentary.
Émilie was married at nineteen and had children with her husband. She also had several lovers, including Voltaire. Her affair with the man would last for the rest of her life. Their mental compatibility was the fuel of their relationship. In a letter to a friend Voltaire describes Émilie as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” He appreciated and loved Émilie so much, he stayed her close companion even when she became pregnant by another lover. It was after this pregnancy that Émilie would die at the young age of forty-three.
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21 6 / 2013
Melba Roy, NASA Mathematician, at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in 1964. Ms. Roy led a group of NASA mathematicians known as “computers” who tracked the Echo satellites. The first time I shared Ms. Roy on VBG, my friend Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a former postdoc in astrophysics at NASA, helpfully explained what Ms. Roy did in the comment section. I am sharing Chanda’s comment again here: “By the way, since I am a physicist, I might as well explain a little bit about what she did: when 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. Anyway, that’s the story behind orbital element timetables”. Photo: NASA/Corbis.
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22 2 / 2013
Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890-1980) was an American mathematician and educator. She was the first African-American woman to gain a PhD in mathematics, from the Catholic University of America in 1943.
Euphemia Lofton was the daughter of William S. Lofton, a dentist and financier, and Lavinia Day Lofton. After graduating from Washington D.C. Miner Normal School with distinction, she went on to earn an undergraduate mathematics major (and psychology minor) from Smith College in 1914. In 1917 she married Harold Appo Haynes. She got her masters degree in education from the University of Chicago in 1930, and in 1943 gained her PhD at age 53. Her dissertation was titled “The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences.”
Dr. Haynes spent 47 years teaching math in D.C.’s public schools; in 1959, she became head of the city’s Board of Education, and was instrumental in desegregating the high school she attended four decades prior. She also established a mathematics department at her teachers’ college, and established a scholarship fund upon her death.
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03 11 / 2012
Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was an innovative and talented science communicator, with an extraordinary (and mostly self-taught) grasp of mathematics in an era when most women had no access to formal education. As a direct result of her work, calculus was introduced to the English-speaking scientific world, the idea of physics (as a single subject containing topics such as optics, thermodynamics and astronomy) was invented, and the term “scientist” was coined to describe people who studied the various sciences.
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16 10 / 2012
- She was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. She survived. That would be badass enough for a post, but there’s more!
- She learned Mathematics from her mother, despite being ill for most of her childhood. That would be badass enough, considering it was the early Nineteenth Century, but there’s more!
- She tried to elope with her tutor. That would be enough… but there’s more!
- She wrote the first computer program. This would be enough to be called badass, but there’s more: she did it before computers were invented. There was only the idea (by Charles Babbage, who was quite smitten with her and called her “the Enchantress of Numbers”) of the Analytical Engine, but it was never put in practice.
- There’s even more: she was the first person to think that machines could do more than mere calculations.
- And she did all this in 36 years, finding also the time to have a husband and three children.
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13 10 / 2012
Marie-Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776 – June 27, 1831) was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. Despite initial opposition from her parents and difficulties presented by a sexist society, she gained education from books in her father’s library and from correspondence with famous mathematicians such as Lagrange, Legendre, and Gauss. One of the pioneers of elasticity theory, she won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for her essay on the subject. Her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem provided a foundation for mathematicians exploring the subject for hundreds of years after. Because of prejudice against her gender, she was unable to make a career out of mathematics, but she worked independently throughout her life. (continue)
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24 9 / 2012
Maria Angela Ardinghelli (1730–1825) was an Italian translator, mathematician, and physicist.
Maria was born in Naples into a noble family of Florentine origin. She studied philosophy and physical-mathematical sciences under the physicist and mathematician Pietro Della Torre and Vito Caravelli.
As was obligatory for the aristocratic women of the time, Maria Angela was a literate poet and Latinist, as well as expert of mathematical physics. She belonged to the circle of the prince of Tarsia, founded in 1747, which, in intellectual circles in Naples, had the strongest association to Newton, experimental physics and electricity. The library and the laboratory of Tarsia was to be of much use to her.
An expert in mathematical physics, she is mainly known for her translation into Italian of English physiologist Stephen Hales’s book, Vegetable Staticks (1727), a classic text in plant physiology. She also performed scientific experiments inspired by the translations.
She corresponded with leading scientists of the time, including, to name a few, the mathematician and astronomer and physicist Alexis Claude Clairaut and Jean-Antoine Nollet.
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18 9 / 2012
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) was an Italian mathematician who wrote the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus. She was also an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna.
Maria was born in Milan to a wealthy family. She was recognized early as a child prodigy. When she was 9 years old, she composed and delivered an hour-long speech in Latin to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day. By her thirteenth birthday she had acquired Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Latin, and was referred to as the “Walking Polyglot”. Maria was shy by nature and did not like all these public meetings. Around 15, she devoted her study to differential and integral calculus and avoided all social interactions. She also taught her siblings.
She wrote the book Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, published in 1748. The first volume discusses the analysis of finite quantities and the second of the analysis of infinitesimals.
In 1750, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna. She was the first women appointed as a mathematics professor at a university. After the death of her father in 1752 she took to the study of theology and devoted herself to the poor, homeless, and sick. After holding for some years the office of director of the Hospice Trivulzio for Blue Nuns at Milan, she herself joined the sisterhood.
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