April is Mathematics Awareness Month! Celebrate with five mathematicians and the contributions they made to the world.
Our writer Zayan Guedim recently covered quantum advancement in our last Math Awareness Month article. This article takes a more personal approach by showcasing a handful of modern or little-celebrated mathematicians.
Can you guess all of the mathematicians on our list? Hint: we get obscure here.
1. Cédric Villani, a.k.a. the “Lady Gaga” of Math
Most modern mathematicians don’t wear huge spider brooches and lavallières. But mathematics Nobel Prize winner Cédric Villani isn’t your average mathematician.
People regard him as a rock star in France, but he was also elected to a lower house of French Parliament in 2017. He works mainly on Riemannian geometry, partial differential equations, and mathematical physics.
For our French-speaking readers, you can find his entire paper on the hydrodynamic limits of the Boltzmann equation right here. Villani also worked with Ricci curvature regarding metric-measure spaces and optimal transport.
His 2016 TED Talk, linked above, explains what is “so sexy about math”. But he also has opinions about AI and concerns about data privacy laws. France does not have the “GAFA” (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) data-gathering powerhouses.
Villani says that these companies help fuel machine learning which, in turn, fuels AI development. In his interview with The Verge, Villani raises a chilling concept regarding autonomy not many have discussed yet.
“…it is a great dropping of the ball…not so much on the research side but on ensuring that privacy laws are up to date and moving toward international agreements…on autonomous weapons.”
Take me back to the pre-calculus I hated so much in high school and college, please!
2. Ada Lovelace: Writer of the First Computer Program
Charles Babbage, long lauded for his work, actually relied on the work of one Ada Lovelace. She helped Babbage develop his Analytical Engine, a calculating machine and computer precursor.
Nicknamed “the enchantress of numbers”, Lovelace’s mother encouraged her interest in mathematics. She began working with Babbage and others like Louis Menebrea. In translating notes, Lovelace developed ideas of her own.
Namely, she developed what some believe to be the first algorithm in the 19th century. Her extensive notes entitled “Note G” envisioned more than a calculating machine. That’s why many say that Lovelace’s work eventually led to modern computers and even video games.
Researchers also attribute the idea of computer-generated music to Lovelace.
Even if you can’t do complex calculations, you can celebrate Lovelace’s legacy by booting up your favorite video game.
3. Isaac Newton and Other Old Dudes
Almost everyone who has taken a rudimentary physics class knows who Isaac Newton is. You can eat an apple for him or celebrate by learning about his influences. One such influence: French philosopher Rene Descartes.
Known primarily for using reason in tandem with the study of natural sciences, Descartes also contributed to the math world.
His Cartesian geometry used algebra to navigate geometric properties. His proposal of a solar system formation theory landed his books on the Pope’s List of Prohibited Books.
Archimedes is another mathematician who is both old, a dude, and in the same vein of Newton.
Depicted in the classic Disney film The Sword in the Stone as an ornery owl, the real Archimedes hailed from Sicily.
He worked mainly in the world of geometry but was also an engineer and inventor.
Before Archimedes’ birth in 287 B.C., Pythagoras had invented the Pythagorean Theorem. Pythagoras, like Descartes, fused mathematics and philosophy. He also favored oral teaching, never writing down his own proofs.
Other mathematicians, such as Euclid, had to prove the Pythagorean Theorem on their own. Why don’t you give it a try for Mathematics Awareness Month?
4. Hedy Lamarr: Movie Star and Mathematician
Hedy Lamarr starred in dozens of old Hollywood films. Some studio executives even referred to her as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Lamarr wanted to engage, act, and create. This led her away from acting and toward becoming an inventor.
In fact, she developed a product to turn water into cola. But her main achievement is the frequency-hopping technology developed with composer George Antheil.
Lamarr used her knowledge of weapons for the project (having once been married to a Mussolini sympathizer and Austrian arms dealer). The device enabled radio-guided torpedoes to avoid jamming from interference.
Some also attribute the invention of GPS technology and WiFi to Lamarr’s contributions. Celebrate Mathematics Awareness Month in honor of Lamarr by getting out of the house and playing Pokemon GO this weekend.
5. Katherine Johnson (Hidden Figures)
Profiled in the hit film Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson served NASA as a “computer wearing a skirt”. Johnson used her knowledge of analytical geometry to help calculate trajectory vectors for Alan Shepherd’s first space trip.
“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” Johnson told NASA in a 2008 interview.
“Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start.” Similarly to how baseball player Babe Ruth “called his shots”, Johnson touted her skills.
“…I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backward and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.” These achievements earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to her in 2015.
We profiled Johnson alongside 35 other Black inventors, scientists, and mathematicians in February. She is alive and well today to celebrate Mathematics Awareness Month.
Mathematics gets a bad name a lot of the time, often by people who choose not to try to understand it. This month, take some time to figure out a little more about the fundamental language of the universe that has given us everything from modern computers to this incredible equation.