Women mathematicians in fiction

Alex Kasman (College of Charleston) runs a great site on mathematical fiction, where he describes books, plays, and films featuring mathematics in some way. I found an interesting article by him on women mathematicians in fiction. He found that only about 100 works out of the 900 he catalogues contain female mathematicians.

One of the more famous examples is the character of Catherine in the play and film Proof. Her deceased father Robert was a math genius who suffered from mental illness. The tension in Proof revolves around whether Catherine authored a proof of a deep problem on prime numbers found in her father’s notes.

I have to scratch my head to think of other examples of women mathematicians in literature or film.  Certainly, there a number of strong female characters in science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. The site AfterEllen.com published a list of 40 of them. Others that come to mind include Samantha Carter in Stargate SG – 1, or characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy, Willow, Dawn, Glory, …). But where are all the math geeks with XX chromosomes?

Daniel Dotson (Ohio State University) wrote an interesting paper Portrayal of Mathematicians in Fictional Works. He found that both men and women mathematicians are usually portrayed negatively in literature, with women faring better overall for traits such as obsessive or out-of-touch. Women mathematicians, however, appear in fictional works as more timid or brave.

What a crock!  Some of the most ambitious and strong-minded mathematicians I know are women.

It’s time for more diverse stories to be told about mathematicians. We are not just one narrow demographic but as diverse as any other field.

A biopic on Emmy Noether is long overdue. We want to read more about historical characters like Hypatia and Sofia Kovalevskaya. What about a Diane Sawyer interview with Field’s medalist Maryam Mirzakhani? With all due respect to the wonderful Imitation Game, when will we see the real story of Alan Turing on film?

And then there is my novel Pattern Earth, where everything is going to change.

Anthony Bonato

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