Hi everyone and welcome to my new blog Science Goddess. Here I'll be writing about whatever I feel like on scientific subjects, be it a pointer to something I love or a rant about something I hate. The blog will reflect my two-fold belief that science is a set of conceptual enchantments that stir our minds and senses, and it's also a socially embedded activity that necessarily reflects wider currents in politics, society, and culture. This plays out in ways that are at times fantastic and beautiful and at others troubling, or even outrageous. As someone who's committed my life to communicating better about STEM subjects, I believe its our duty – and a sacred one - to highlight what's great about science while not being afraid to shy away from its darker affiliations.
I'll begin on a high note as this website has been a long time coming and there's much to celebrate! In honor of my blog name, I'm devoting my first post to mathematical goddesses. No-one epitomizes this more than the brilliant mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman (so far) to win the Fields Medal, the math Nobel. Mirzakhani died a few weeks at age 40, after an long battle with breast cancer, a tragedy that's been widely mourned in the science press. But lets take a moment to marvel at her achievements. Much of her work was in the area of geometry and topology, and she was an expert on the properties of hyperbolic surfaces - which makes her resonate particularly in my heart, given my work with hyperbolic crochet. Mirzakhani studied the ways curves behave on hyperbolic surfaces that have holes, a quality known as their genus. Holey surfaces are hugely challenging from a mathematical perspective even when they're Euclidean, and are much harder to understand if they're hyperbolic. In her final years, Mirzakhani had realized that the properties of holey hyperbolic surfaces could be related to the mathematics of billiard balls on polygonal tables, a famously alluring and difficult problem that her research was illuminating. Isn't it great what mathematicians spend time on?
In addition to being the first woman to win a Fields Medal, Mirzakhani was also the first Iranian, and in this sense she reminds us of the great, too-often glossed over, history of science and mathematics in the Islamic world. Her death has lent fuel to two important debates in Iran: one is whether children born to Iranian mothers should automatically qualify for Iranian citizenship. Currently, only children born to Iranian fathers qualify, which means Mirzakhani's own daughter doesn't. The other social debate she feeds into is that in Iran the press is barred from showing images of Iranian woman abroad unless they're wearing head scarves. Mirzakhani didn't wear scarves but the Iranian press have widely used her image as national PR. Now the question arises as to why shouldn't other Iranian women also be shown with bare heads, including Persian actresses at Hollywood red carpet affairs. It's interesting that it's a mathematician rather than an entertainer who's pioneered this path and is hopefully helping to open up channels for all Iranian women. And while we're on the subject of gender, lets pause to ponder the implications of the fact that its Persia that's produced the first female Field's Medalist, maths' highest honor.
Many tributes to Mirzakhani have been written and the American Mathematical Society has set up a page to honor her and collect them. Here's an insightful piece about her work in Quanta by Erica Klarreich, and another in Forbes by Paul Helpern, plus a lovely essay in Scientific American by Evelyn Lamb, herself something of a math goddess. The New York Times, Psychology Today and the Tehran Times all ran pieces, testifying to Mirzakhani's near-mythical status. One of my favorites was the New Yorker essay by Siobhan Roberts, author of two biographies about math legends: geometer Donald Coxeter (who famously taught M.C. Escher about hyperbolic space, immortalized in his Circle Limit series of prints), and a terrific book about John Horton Conway, who invented the "game of life" based on cellular automata.
Which brings us to the point that there are an amazing number of women today writing superbly about mathematics and math-related sciences. In addition to Lamb and Roberts, we can also admire the work of Natalie Walchova, a writer for Quanta and Nautilus, among others. See her gorgeous recent pieces on solving the mystery of pentagonal tiling and on a physics theory of life. All around, women are proving that the beauties of mathematics can be enjoyed, shared and celebrated by everyone.
Speaking of brilliant women, I'd like to thank Caitlyn Parry for her awesome design of this website.