All of These Things Are Not Like the Other

NSW education has just launched a series of books for parents of little kids, “stories of inventors, innovators and trailblazers”. In principle, the idea seems optimistic and pushy, but sure, give it a go if you want. In practice, the five “mavericks” so far chosen are, um, something: Grace Hopper,* Katherine Johnson, Sophie Germain,** Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.

It feels like a really difficult IQ test question.

*) Yeah, me neither. 

**) For her contribution to architecture. 

19 Replies to “All of These Things Are Not Like the Other”

  1. Not sure what the point of this post is – are we upset that two women we’ve never heard of are being mentioned in the same sentence as Einstein and Hawking? It’s not possible that who gets remembered and noticed by history isn’t straightforward? Frankly after looking them up they sound pretty interesting for a children’s book. If we’re ruling them out for contention because they’re not Einstein, well – lots of people aren’t! That’s a pretty high bar to clear. Again – it’s a children’s book, not a textbook, or a book claiming to be the authority on all things maths related.

    As a (female) Specialist maths teacher and regular reader of this blog I don’t buy into the culture war crap that says we can’t think that maths need to be rigorous and actually mathematical, while also being concerned about the fact that talented female students overwhelming drop higher level maths as they progess through school, and are underrepresented in both maths and physics at the higher end. Perhaps it would help if they read a book about a female mathematician? Who knows – but I would rest assured that they still have plenty of opportunity for reading and hearing about Hawking and Einstein. I don’t think their place in the cultural cannon is under threat quite yet.

    1. Hi Amber. I wasn’t really trying to fire a shot in the culture war. I take your points, and agree to an extent. I also don’t see any particular reason for such a book series to have a clear or consistent theme. Nonetheless, it seems to me a very weird selection.

  2. All these books are already published, highly rated books. The one about Einstein is the oldest (published 2013). So, it’s not a selection of people. It’s a selection of books. Maybe that explains it? Anyway, I agree with Amber.

      1. Yeah, looking at that link, it doesn’t seem to me like NSW education done anything other than recommend some children’s books. They all sound good too.

  3. Sophie Germain is amazing! A really interesting story that one.

    I guess they are all different, but without know Marty’s point I don’t know how to react to this one!

    Two NASA scientists
    A math revolutionary
    Two theoretical physicists

    In terms of transformation of their entire field, I think Germain, Hawking and Einstein stand out. But certainly the two NASA scientists are interesting and would be nice for kids (of all kinds..) to look up to and learn about. At least IMO.

    1. Germain is not a math revolutionary. The only reason she is not forgotten is because she was a woman. In terms of scientific accomplishments, Marie Curie, Henrietta Leavitt and Emmy Noether (!) would have been much better choices. If you search the web for “Sophie Germain” and “architecture”, basically the only hits lead back to this book; I’ll let you draw the right conclusions from this.

      1. Do you know the history of elastic rods and how their study influenced mathematics? Have you heard of the Willmore energy?

        These topics are some of what I research as a mathematician. A friend of mine (another mathematician) conducted a short investigation that was published (in French) and reveals some of what Germain was able to do. The fact that you didn’t find much using the mighty powers of Google does not surprise me.

        The fact you are so confident in what you think you know and that you think you have a proof for it is quite unfortunate.

      2. Both of you: play nice, please. I think Germaine’s (and other’s) stature is debatable and can be debated (and the relevance of that stature to this book series can be debated). But do so nicely.

        1. Actually we don’t need to debate her stature. Somebody wrote a children’s book about her. There are children’s books about talking bananas. She’s not being put up on a list of the top 100 mathematical thinkers of all time. What’s interesting about Germaine is that she contributed to mathematical thinking, however debatable, despite being actively banned from studying maths. Does that not sound like decent material for a kids book? An inspiring story for young girls? Are you worried that a more suitably qualified man missed out on being lauded in the coveted Prep-2 literature category?

          1. Amber, I sort of agree, but only sort of. As I wrote, one can debate the relevance of Germain’s mathematical stature to being included in such a book series. But to consider it entirely irrelevant also seems misguided, and misleading.

            Maybe it is wrong to consider these books as a series, but that is how NSW Ed presented it. Did Germain “change the world” the way Einstein did, or in the way many other 19th century mathematicians did? Hardly.

            They want woman role models. Fine. I think the benefits of this business is way oversold, especially for Year 1 kids, but fine. But it doesn’t help anyone to oversell.

            1. Marty, Germain really did shape a lot of mathematics with her work. It’s not an exaggeration. She’s no Euler or Gauss, but hardly anyone is. Poisson, Bernoulli, Laplace, Legendre, … yes. Note that names being attached to things are not evidence of them being “theirs”. As already seen here, Germain already gets hardly any credit for her accomplishments and we achieve nothing by perpetuating it.

              1. Thanks, Glen. I think the fine evaluation of Germain’s stature is off the point, or at least off my point. But I’m curious about (and sceptical of) your claim that Germain these days “gets hardly any credit for her accomplishments”. If you indicate something reliable to read, either by email or in a comment here, I’ll look.

                1. I think it stems from how she was discredited during her life. It will change with time I hope, but I hope it changes appropriately and not as part of a (misguided) social movement. But actually, I became distracted on this point and would much rather that you discuss *your* point in making this post.

                  “All of these things are not like the other” suggests that the list is unusual because of a single outlier, I’m guessing Einstein is the outlier? Or perhaps the two NASA scientists are the outliers. I’m curious.

                  1. OK, i’m fine with going on from the Germain thing. But of course “discredited during her life” and “[presently] gets hardly any credit” are very different claims.

                    Yes, as much as anyone, Einstein feels to me like an outlier here. But, they all feel pretty outlierish, which is what my title was meant to convey. I guess Hawking and Einstein are vaguely in the same place, and similarly Johnson and Hopper. But it feels to me a very peculiar grouping.

              2. Glen,

                I think Marie Curie stands very well as a scientist

                There are not many “carbon based” lifeforms with Nobel Prizes in two different fields
                Her daughter Irene also scored one Chemistry in 1935.

                More recently my descendants were impressed with Dr Katie Mack (an aspiring astronaut and astronomer at MEL Uni)

                sample lecture to public in 2017

                Steve R

                1. Marie Curie is amazing, agreed, and definitely receives a lot of recognition! The Marie Curie Fellowship for example is one of the most prestigious in the world.

  4. I must say that I always enjoy a good biography. I recall reading that Andrew Wiles was inspired by E.T. Bell (1961) “The last problem” when he was in high school.

  5. Seems probable to me that each author just nominated someone they’d like to write about. Each writer is a woman, it’d come as no surprise that some might be interested in writing about female mathematicians, even if their contributions may be ostensibly lesser than “the greats”.

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