Two mathematicians

Today in the New York Times I saw an article that caught my eye, because of the accompanying photos. The two images were of top mathematicians, both recently deceased. One was Marina Ratner, the other Maryam Mirzakhan.

For one wild crazy moment I fantasized that the article was just going to talk about their ideas, honoring them as mathematicians, and outlining their intellectual accomplishments. But we do not live in that world.

The article did discuss their ideas, translated very well into lay terminology. But the major point of the article — written by Amie Wilkinson, herself a mathematician — was the dearth of women among the ranks of mathematicians, and the consequent lack of successful female role models for young women contemplating a career in mathematics.

Of course this is a real issue, and the passing of two top mathematicians is a good occasion to raise it. There is woeful gender disparity in this field.

But in that crazy moment, I imagined that I had glimpsed an alternate saner world. In that saner world I was simply reading an article in the New York times about the brilliant work of two top minds.

Sure, they happened to be female, but in my imagined alternate world we would have long ago realized that mathematics is gender neutral. That alternate version of the article would be about the fascinating and intellectually elegant work of these two mathematicians, and what we might all learn from it.

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