Review: Power in numbers — the rebel women of mathematics

Celebrate International Women’s day by reading about rebel women in mathematics!

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As soon as the Chalkdust team heard about the publication of her new book Power in numbers: the rebel women of mathematics we contacted the author, Talithia Williams, with a request to read and review it.  And we are sold: it is good to rebel!

Being herself the first black woman to achieve tenure at Harvey Mudd College, Talithia Williams brings us the inspiring stories of 30 notable women who developed their careers in STEM.  It has been said that the lack of visibility of female role models in mathematics is one of the most common sources of discouragement for young girls to pursue maths at a higher level. The other strong contender being the misconception that maths is not useful. Talithia shatters that delusion by giving us a plethora of both surprising applications of mathematics and an even more surprising selection of careers that can follow a STEM degree.

The book is divided in three sections: The pioneers, From code breaking to rocket science, and Modern math mavens, each featuring women sorted by their date of birth, starting with Wang Zhenyi, “an astronomer and mathematician who explained both lunar and solar eclipses”, and finishing with Pamela E. Harris, a 34-year-old inspirational Mexican mathematician, currently working on vector partition functions and graph theory at Williams College, Massachusetts. Through the stories of our 30 protagonists, Power in numbers becomes an accurate portrayal of how many women have had to fight against the obstacles that society put in their path in order to become important contributors to their field.

The cool maths aside, some of the biographies are particularly inspiring. Especially those of the women of our generation, as they allow the reader to relate more to the challenges and understand the circumstances. A particular example, and one that deserves a special mention, is the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017). Talithia Williams tells us how Mirzakhani grew from being a poor maths student at school to being awarded with the Gold Medal in the 1994 International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong. The change of attitude towards mathematics was partly due to the influence of her brother, who was always enthusiastic about science, and her classmate Roya Behenshti, who also participated in the 1994 Olympiad. This reminds us how important the support and encouragement from those close to us — friends, family and teachers — is in shaping our future.

Maryam Mirzakhani

After her success in 1994, Mirzakhani worked at Sharif University, Harvard and Princeton University. In 2014, she was awarded the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel prize, becoming first and only female winner. Sadly, Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. But that did not stop her! She continued working on mathematics until her passing in 2017. Her loss was a big one, as can be seen from the reaction of many media outlets that dedicated pieces to her.

Talithia Williams uses simple and dynamic language that makes the book engaging and easy to read. The abundant use of images is something that appealed to us while reading the book, as it helps the reader to connect to the featured mathematicians better and it also makes the reading experience more entertaining.

Some of our own rebel women celebrating International Women’s day.

Although the more advanced readers might miss some technical details, Power in numbers is for both mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike. We’d say it’s a must for young (female) students feeling insecure about pursuing maths at higher level, because of its male dominated nature.  By reading the book, they will learn about the important historical figures that shaped the mathematics community, as well as find a role model in the many examples of extraordinary researchers doing mathematics right now!

Niki is a PhD student at UCL, working in analytic number theory.
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