Girls of Australia: stand up and count! with Margaret Wertheim, Clio Cresswell and Robyn Arianrhod

Hot on the heels of an email exchange I had today about the power of numbers and metrics in our 21st century global society (which I’ll be talking about on Wednesday 27 March 2013 at the University of Tasmania), comes the dismaying news that 21.5 % of female school students eligible for an ATAR in 2011 did not study any maths.

In a report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Amy McNeilage writes:

‘In 2001, 7.5 per cent of female students eligible for an ATAR [Australian Tertiary Admission Rank] did not study any maths, a new report from the University of Sydney says. A decade later this had jumped to 21.5 per cent. Over the same period, the rate of male students in NSW not studying maths increased from 3.1 per cent to 9.8 per cent.’

The gender disparity is now GREATER than it was in the 1980s. And this is despite campaigns to increase the participation of girls in maths and science.

Needless to say, the University of Sydney’s Dr Rachel Wilson called the findings ‘deeply disturbing’ – and suggested that gender stereotyping could be partly to blame. She said ‘We need a kind of public education program to shift the image of maths.’

Hypatia - cool mathematician

Hypatia – cool mathematician

So, maths needs to be seen as cool. (Maths IS cool – and it’s one of the most powerful intellectual and political languages of the modern world.)

With that in mind, here are three brilliant, successful, inspiring, COOL mathematicians who went to school in Australia – and who also happen to be women.

Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim

1. Margaret Wertheim is a mathematician, physicist and writer. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she and her twin sister Christine founded the Institute for Figuring in 2003 to showcase the ‘aesthetic and enchanted’ constructs of science, mathematics and technology.

Her books include the bestselling Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, physics and the gender wars (1996), a radical rereading of the history of physics, maths and religion; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A history of space from Dante to the Internet (1999), which tracks western conceptions of space, physical, virtual and spiritual, from medieval times; and Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything (2011).

In the opening paragraph of Pythagoras’ Trousers, Wertheim refers to a mystical experience she had in a maths class aged 10. This is so tantalising that when I spoke to her my first question was about her early experience of maths.

One day when she was in Grade 6 her teacher (Mr Marshall) gave a lesson on circles. He told his students about ‘a number hidden in the circle which is the secret of its properties’, then conducted some exercises so they could discover pi for themselves. Some did – and Wertheim was one of them.

‘It was an extraordinary experience. I remember being struck forcefully by what we call Platonism [the belief that there is a transcendent mathematical reality beyond the physical world] – that hidden in the physical circles which we see manifested in physical objects around us, there was this transcendent mathematical entity called pi.’

When she left school Wertheim completed degrees in physics (University of Queensland), and maths and computing (University of Sydney). But she began to feel she was living one life at university and  another life beyond it, and these two lives became increasingly difficult to reconcile. So after university Wertheim worked as an assistant film editor for a year.

Then she read Chaos: Making a new science by James Gleick, which inspired her to become a science writer. Her articles have since appeared in a range of journals, from The New York Times to Vogue. When Wertheim moved to LA she decided to write the accessible book on physics she’d been planning to write to explain to her friends the esoteric world that enthralled her.

Four years later, she completed Pythagoras’ Trousers, a very different book from the one she’d set out to write. Like many people, Wertheim had believed that science and religion were ancient adversaries. But quite unexpectedly her research uncovered a western mystical tradition that dated back to Pythagoras, a fusion of religion, mathematics and mathematically-based science that contradicted this belief – and which had been incorporated into Christianity during the Middle Ages and subsequently woven into Christian thinking.

According to Wertheim, this is why physicists like Stephen Hawking can talk so freely about the mind of God. As she points out, ‘when scientists talk about God, a lot of people who wouldn’t dream of hearing a priest talk about God will pay attention. Why? Because I think our culture has been very receptive to the conception that the mathematical relations in the world around us are transcendent, divine, eternal truths.’

Wertheim’s discovery of this connection between maths, physics and God led her to another unexpected insight: that women’s absence from physics has been profoundly shaped by their exclusion from the Church. ‘I stumbled across something that I think was a real insight into why it has been so difficult for women to break into this field.’

The role of the imagination in theoretical physics is one of Wertheim’s great fascinations. She believes Hawking’s brilliant imagination is what has made him ‘the most famous living scientist on the planet’. As she says, the imaginative universe Hawking presents ‘gives us the power to dream’ – and physics has become ‘in some sense a new form of fiction. Through the language of mathematics we bring fabulous worlds into being.’

Robyn Arianrhod

Robyn Arianrhod

2. Which is just how Robyn Arianrhod sees mathematics – as an ‘amazing and elegant’ language. Arianrhod’s first book, Einstein’s Heroes: imagining the world through the language of mathematics (2003), tells the story of maths through the life and revolutionary work of legendary 19th-century mathematical physicist Robert Clerk Maxwell.

Arianrhod’s second book, Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution (2011) is a devastating, fascinating story about two remarkable women mathematicians who against extraordinary odds made major contributions to our understanding of the physics of Isaac Newton.

Emilie du Chatelet was among the very few Europeans who understood the significance of Newton’s work and she became one of his Principia Mathematica‘s earliest champions and interpreters. In the 1740s she made the first and still most comprehensive French translation of Newton’s 510-page Latin original.

And Mary Somerville translated into English the first two volumes of the 5-volume Celestial Mechanics by Newton’s French disciple Pierre-Simon Laplace, a work of such complexity that it was understood by a mere handful of men in Britain. On its publication in 1831 Somerville’s translation became the standard text for higher astronomy at Cambridge University and would remain so for the next 100 years.

And yet Somerville herself, as a woman, was not permitted to study at Cambridge. Like du Chatelet, she was not free to pursue the flights of her intellect unhindered. Instead, she squeezed her mathematics into the cracks between her domestic chores.

She wrote: ‘I rose early and made such arrangements with regard to my children and family affairs that I had time to write afterwards, not however without many interruptions. A man can always command his time under the plea of business, a woman has no such excuse.’

In Somerville’s 19th century intellectual study was considered unnatural for women and damaging to their health. When her father discovered Mary’s secret interest in geometry and algebra he said: ‘We must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straitjacket one of these days.’

I’ve already written about Arianrhod, Einstein’s Heroes and Seduced by Logic here, so I won’t repeat myself except to say that Arianrhod is a supremely gifted mathematician with a passion for physics – she works at Monash University on Einstein’s equations – and for promoting understanding of both maths and physics, especially among women.

Clio Cresswell

Clio Cresswell

3. Clio Cresswell struggled with maths at her school in the south of France. Born in England, Cresswell grew up in Greece and France before moving to Sydney. When I asked her if she was drawn to maths because it was the one constant language of her school years she laughed and said: ‘No! I was hopeless at maths!’ Which is hard to believe, given she’s now a senior lecturer in mathematics and statistics at the University of Sydney.

Cresswell is devoted to communicating the liberating power and beauty of mathematics – and to exploding the popular stereotype of the mathematician as nerd or misfit. Nothing else gives her the adrenaline rush that maths does. She says:

‘For me, it’s the multiplicity of maths that’s so wonderful. Mathematics captures this amazing tapestry that you can’t express with words.’

Cresswell wrote her first book, Mathematics and Sex (2003), after telling a friend about the equations for marriage she’d use in her public speaking, ‘just for a laugh’. He told her she should write a book called ‘maths and sex’ and she said: ‘That study was a fluke, there’s never going to be anything else on maths and sex.’ But when she went to the library to look into it, she found she was wrong. There was a ‘whole host of material’ on maths and sex.

So how did Cresswell, who struggled with maths at school, end up as a mathematician? One year, when she was about 14, she unexpectedly did well in maths. The following year she topped maths. But she continued to prepare for a Baccalaureate in painting, sculpture and ceramics. It was only when she moved to Sydney and found high school art uninspiring that Cresswell began to focus on maths.

She studied mathematics at university and won the University Medal. So she decided to take a PhD in maths: ‘I thought it would be a fun way to spend three years’. Apparently there are about 10 people in the world who could read her PhD and understand it.

Creswell believes maths is the best way to exercise our minds and open them beyond the dualistic limitations of our verbal perceptions. Arianrhod believes an understanding of mathematical science is essential if we’re to engage responsibly in future decisions about its powerful applications (which last century included atomic power, cloning and the microchip). And as Wertheim says, mathematical physics does not just shape our physical world, it ‘powerfully shapes the socially acceptable territory of the modern imagination’.

So, Girls of Australia: stand up and count!

Emilie du Chatelet

Emilie du Chatelet

This entry was posted in Maths and science, Other news and marginalia. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Girls of Australia: stand up and count! with Margaret Wertheim, Clio Cresswell and Robyn Arianrhod

  1. Hi Jane,

    Hoping you are well. Congrats on your recent publications.

    Thanks for this entry. I’ll pass it on to maths teachers where I work in south-west Sydney.

    On another note, Luke Davies is about to re-issue ‘Four Plots for Magnets’ (his ultra-rare first collection from 1982) through Pitt Street Poetry. The book will have the original poems from 1982, plus 50 other poems from the period! Wow. I’m stoked about this, because I suggested to John Knight, head honcho of PSP, that he re-release it.

    Peace and light,


  2. Hi Lorne – good to hear from you and thanks for passing this on.

    And even more thanks SO MUCH for mentioning the reissue of ‘Four Plots for Magnets’! I had heard (from Luke when he was last in Sydney), so thanks for reminding me – yes, it’s SO exciting. I have a copy of the original edition, LOVE it so much. But didn’t know there were going to be 50 other poems from that period included too. WOW WOW WOW. Such exciting news – and fantastic to hear you were the one who suggested it! Excellent suggestion. Cannot wait. I wonder when it’s out? Soon, I guess, from what you say.

    all best to you, Jane

  3. Hey Jane,

    Cool news, huh?! I’m flattered that JK went with my idea. The collection’s out in April. According to a new PSP memo, it’ll include a foreword by Luke and something by the collection’s original editor. PSP produces such beautiful work, so no doubt Luke will be happy. It should make John and Luke a bit of money.

    I’m impressed you have an original edition. Nice work.

    Peace n light,


  4. Pingback: Quietly Pushing Barriers Aside | Stumbling Through the Past

  5. Hi. Many thanks for the lovely mention of my book in the piece. How disturbing to hear that the statistics on young women’s engagement with science is still so poor. You may be interested to know that I’m giving a talk at Sydney University – its the Templeton Lecture – on Monday March 18. Its going to be about a new project I’ve been doing to engage women with mathematics and environmental issues. The talk is hosted by CHAST – the Sydney Uni Center for the Human Aspects of Science and Technology. Please let me know if you’d like to attend as my guest.

    with regards
    Margaret Wertheim

    • Hi Margaret – Wonderful to hear from you. And many thanks for letting me know about your Templeton Lecture and your generous offer that I attend as your guest. I’d love to, very much, even more so reading that you’ll be talking about your new project to engage women with mathematics and environmental issues. Couldn’t be more perfect for me. I’ll look forward to it very much. Till then, best wishes, Jane

  6. Robyn Arianrhod says:

    Hi Jane

    I always love your blog, but special thanks for your recent piece on the declining interest in maths in Australia AND the widening gender gap – these are both worrying trends. But thank you for your rallying cry – maths IS cool, and yes, Girls of Australia, stand up and count!! And thanks so much for the lovely things you said about my work.
    Your forthcoming talk at U Tas sounds intriguing – good luck with it, and I look forward to a post about it! And hope you have a great time with Margaret at her Templeton lecture.

    xx Robyn Arianrhod

  7. Hey Jane,

    Hot off the press courtesy of John Knight… bash for Luke’s collection 4pm May 26th @ Brett Whitely Studio… hopefully you can make it… I’ll be there.

    Peace n light,


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