Get thee to a nunnery… and study math

Sisterhood of Mathematics

My grade 11 Physics teacher was a nun. Thinking back, she reminded me of the famed mathematician Emmy Noether: she was big framed, wore simple clothes (no habit in class, however), and didn’t wear make-up. I think my classmates were frightened of her, but I wasn’t and she liked me. Maybe we were kindred spirits: my passion for mathematics is a devotion, I suppose.

I recently read about Sister Mary Theresa Sharp, who is a nun with Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, and is also an assistant professor of mathematics at Kent State University in Ohio. She teaches applied statistics. In the article, she says:

“I think math’s beautiful. The organization of it, the things that can be discovered and the logic and application of it to things in the world.”

Sister Sharp
Sister Mary Theresa Sharp.

I agree! Mathematics is beautiful, as I often express in these blogs.

Sister Sharp’s story made me wonder if there were other mathematical nuns. As it turns out, there are several, both living and dead.

Maria Agnesi

Maria Agnesi.

The most famous mathematician nun was Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). Agnesi became a nun later in life, after she was appointed as by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna. She worked on early differential and integral calculus, and is famous for her curve, which has the whimsical name The Witch of Agnesi.

The Witch of Agnesi is a family of cubic equations parametrized by a:

\!y={\frac  {8a^{3}}{x^{2}+4a^{2}}}.

This curve comes up in mathematical modeling to many phenomena, such as fluid flow models of the atmosphere. The curve was further popularized by a Google Doogle:

Maria Agnesi's Google Doodle (c) Google

Programming, gambling, and networks

A more recent example was Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, who was the first woman awarded a PhD in computer science in 1965. She did her Bachelors and Masters in Mathematics.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller.

Another mathematical nun is Sister Madeleine Rose Ashton, who received her PhD from Stanford in 1962 under the well-known mathematician George Pólya. Sister Ashton lectured at Holy Names College in Oakland, California (now Holy Names University), and received attention for her lectures on applications of probability to gambling. When asked if praying helps you win, she said “No, I don’t think so.”

When visiting India this last December, I met Sister Jasintha Quadras, who is the principal of Stella Maris College in Chennai. She has a doctorate of mathematics from the University of Madras, and is a graph theorist like myself. Even though Chennai was recently flooded and parts of the college were heavily damaged before my visit, they were very gracious hosts.

After my talk, we went out for lunch at a nearby hotel, and had this photo taken right by a Christmas tree. That was a rare sight in India, but there are actually many Christians there (2.3% of the population, or about 24 million people).

Yours truly in Chennai, India with Sister Quadras (wearing all white).

Room for everyone

Mathematics is a very broad topic, and we all come to it in different ways. That’s why its interesting to see nuns researching and teaching it. Anyone can and should study math, regardless of their gender, religion, or race.

As the great math teacher James Escalante said: “Mathematics is the great equalizer.”

Anthony Bonato

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