Celebrating Pi Day and Women Mathematicians

By this time almost everyone who follows the news, whether in print, on a website, or Facebook or Twitter must have heard Happy_Pi_Daythe news that Saturday, March 14 is Pi Day. Scientific American explains the concept and gives us the history of it. As they write:

If there was ever a year to commemorate Pi Day in a big way, this is it. The date of this Saturday—3/14/15—gives us not just the first three digits (as in most years) but the first five digits of pi, the famous irrational number 3.14159265359… that expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

Unfortunately this only works in the U.S. because, Europe, Canada and most other countries write the date putting the day before the month—14/3/15. If only April had 31 days, they could wait for 31/4/15 but alas that will never come.

Aside from eating pie to commemorate the date and taking our children to the local science museum, what else what else can we do to celebrate the importance of math in our lives? Well, we might think about how few girls study math and how few of the world’s famous mathematicians were women. Considering how difficult it has been until very recently for girls to be encouraged to study math, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Women have always had to fight for their education and in many parts of the world they still do.

Take for example, Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax in 1780 to a wealthy and prominent family in Scotland. Like most girls, she was given little education at home, although one of her uncles recognized her abilities while she was young. It was only when Mary surprised her brother’s tutor by answering his question when her brother was stumped, that she was allowed to receive some limited tutoring herself. With the help of the tutor she was able to teach herself mathematics. Unfortunately, at the age of 24 she married a distant cousin who was convinced that women had no talent for intellectual work. It wasn’t until after his early death that she was free to pursue her own interests. Fortunately, for her second husband she chose a man, William Somerville, also a cousin of hers, who encouraged her interests and introduced her to intellectual circles in Edinburgh and later in London.

Finally Mary was able to study, learn about several branches of science, as well as raising a family. Her husband, a physician, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Of course in those days women were ineligible for membership, but

Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville

she was able to use her husband’s access to learn about the society’s scientific activities. She gained fame through writing popular books about science including The Connexion of the Physical Sciences and Physical Geography, both of which were went through numerous editions.

Throughout her long life—she published her last book at the age of 88 and died in 1872 at the age of 91—Mary Somerville kept up her interest in science and writing. She never, however, did original research nor was she encouraged to do so. It was not expected of women. In an obituary for the Royal Astronomical Society, R.A. Proctor wrote “We shall never know certainly…what science lost through the all but utter neglect of the unusual powers of Mary Fairfax’s mind.”    

Pie to celebrate Pi Day
Pie to celebrate Pi Day
On this Pi Day when we celebrate the importance of mathematics, and by extension all of science, it is important to remember that girls are still not studying math and science as often as boys are. It’s time for all of us, parents, teachers, society in general, to recognize that it’s not acceptable to expect women to merely bake the celebratory pies, we need to encourage them to study the importance of pi too.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Pi Day and Women Mathematicians

  1. Yes! A thoughtful and interesting piece. As always, Adele, thank you for expanding the horizons.

  2. So true! I hope more and more people recognize this, not only on Pi Day, but every day from now on!

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