As part of their ongoing series on Westinghouse (now Intel) Science Talent Search finalists, Scientific American profiles mathematician Moon Duchin, who was a finalist in 1993. Both of Duchin's parents loved numbers, and she knew she wanted to be a mathematician from the tender age of 7. She not only enjoyed math, but excelled at it. She completed all the math classes her high school had to offer her freshman year, and, the summer before her senior year she had the opportunity to work with Harvard number theorist Noam Elkies. Elkies suggested she do some work on lattice geometry, and the resulting paper was entered into the Science Talent Search.
But mathematics wasn't her only interest:
Duchin went to Harvard to study math, but even as she pursued a fairly traditional track for a promising young mathematician, she was becoming suspicious of the traditional great "Men of Mathematics" (to quote a famous book title) concept. "Does it hinge on specific people or is it inevitable it will come out that way?" she asks. The Great Man model of a genius working alone in his garret "started to seem like it was obscuring some of the important community aspects of mathematics, and like it was controlling who would even think to enter the field," she says. Duchin stuck it out because of her 7-year-old dream and "adolescent stubbornness," but "it wasn't always easy to see my way through. Meanwhile, I'd picked up an enduring interest in cultural practices and philosophical issues in science."She completed her PhD in mathematics at the University of Chicago, where she also taught a class in gender studies. Currently she is a post-doc at UC Davis, and is due to start a second postdoc at the University of Michigan this fall. She "ultimately hopes to do cross-disciplinary teaching and research incorporating math and her interest in the humanities."
So at Harvard, Duchin wound up double majoring in math and women's studies. She did a mathematics research thesis, and also one for the women's studies department looking at "Why the notion of genius is so attractive with thinking about math and how it functions, and what it does to math as a field," she says. "Lots of people think this is a non-social field—would math come out differently in a society with a different social organization?" While she's not trying to debunk the existence of genius ("there really are people you meet in math and you learn about who just synthesize things in ways that other people don't have access to with any investment of time"), the Great Man theory "definitely stilts the narrative. A real intellectual history is harder to do but it illuminates the math very differently."
- "The sexual politics of genius" by Moon Duchin (pdf). Read this and keep it in mind the next time you hear someone ask "But why aren't there female geniuses?"
- Duchin's web page at UC Davis
- Duchin's University of Chicago Math Alumnae Project. It looks at all the women mathematics graduates from U of C and what they ended up doing after they left:
In the 16-year period from 1924-1939, an average of two women per year graduated and got a math job.
In the subsequent 28 years, there were five women in all.
The rate picks back up in 1968 to about 1/year.
2004-present: tons (though still not in the same proportions as in the 1920s/30s).
...so, what happened??