This is a guest post from S.L. Huang, debut author of Zero Sum Game, a near-future science fiction thriller about a math-genius mercenary named Cas Russell.
As part of Tor’s #FearlessWomen campaign, and as the author of a near-future thriller that’s about an anti-heroine whose superpower is doing math really, really fast—and who uses it to kill a few too many people—I want to talk about #FearlessWomen in mathematics!
The real ones, that is.
I’ve loved math since before I could remember. And since I was little, one of my favorite things has also been reading up on the biographies and personal lives of mathematicians. Did you think mathematicians were all emotionless logicians? Heck no! Mathematicians are some of the most fascinating, emotional, and nonsensical people, and they are so fun to read about. The massive controversies about the Axiom of Choice, the feud between Newton and Leibniz, the long friendship of Hardy and Littlewood…
And though I myself never felt ostracized as a woman in mathematics, I also found myself seeking out the stories of female mathematicians. History is full of women who have made amazing discoveries in the world of mathematics, and they are badass. Here are just a few…
Ada Lovelace wrote the first ever computer program—for a machine that hadn’t ever been built. That’s some kind of abstract thinking! She was buddies with Charles Babbage, and somehow I feel this excellent comic by Sydney Padua that depicts them as teaming up in a steampunk pocket universe and fighting crime is exceptionally spiritually accurate.
Lovelace struggled with many personal demons, including mental illness, and has a way of emphasizing words in her surviving personal communications that tickles me—it endears her to me as a real human being instead of only a towering historical intellect.
Perhaps best known for her investigations of the eponymous Germain Primes in number theory, Sophie Germain mathematical studies had a rocky start: her parents felt mathematics was inappropriate for a girl and denied her warmth or light to work by.
Undaunted, young Sophie would hide away candles in her room and study while shivering in blankets. I think I would have given up on some of my textbooks if I had to read them in freezing candlelight! Fortunately, her mathematical contemporaries—including Lagrange and Gauss—did not let the fact that she was a woman stop them from recognizing her brilliance, and she was able to make major contributions despite being barred from official studies at the École Polytechnique.
Hypatia was who Young SL Huang found when I looked up the earliest recorded female mathematician in history. A mathematician and philosopher in ancient Alexandria, Hypatia was well-recognized within her time—until she was violently murdered by a mob (possibly… probably?) by being flayed to death by oyster shells. To my knowledge, however, this didn’t have to do with her being a woman, but was a politically-motivated murder committed because Hypatia was just that much of a mover and shaker in intellectual Alexandria.
An African-American mathematician most recently made more famous by the movie Hidden Figures, the real Katherine Johnson is even more interesting to me than her (brilliantly written) film version. Johnson was a critical mind in making the early NASA space missions possible, and has talked about how aggressive she had to be as a woman working on a team of predominantly male scientists in the 1960’s.
Johnson has also been candid about how, while doing the job, the math was what mattered—that she knew the segregation and prejudice surrounded her, but she didn’t really feel it. Her film version makes a great protagonist, but reading about Johnson herself—she feels so much more like a real person, and an incredible one.
The above four mathematicians are only a few of the people who captured my imagination as a child and young adult. Mathematics is full of #FearlessWomen. Even beyond the lists of the famous, I met plenty of women doing my own math studies who are brilliant, creative, and downright impressive people.
Now, as an author who writes about the cool side of math—I must immediately disclaim that the violent, mercenary, slightly kill-happy mathematician who’s the heroine of my Cas Russell series is based on none of these real women. (I dare say they wouldn’t consider it a compliment if she were!)
But neither is the act of writing a badass female mathematician something that exists in a vacuum for me. My own journey studying mathematics, and my eventual fictional creations, are all part of the fabric of a world in which a broad diversity of real, amazing, human women have helped shaped the field I love.
Zero Sum Game is available for pre-order via Amazon or your local independent store. It hits bookshelves on October 2nd.
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author whose debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor. Her short fiction has sold to Strange Horizons, Analog, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also an MIT graduate, stuntwoman, and firearms expert. Follow her at www.slhuang.com or @sl_huang.