Saturday July 15, 2017. When the news struck in the early morning, I was getting my desk and my drawing tools ready to do a graphic summary of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2016, where I participated as a postdoc. The news was a shock: Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to have been awarded the Fields Medal had died of cancer at age 40.

This event is tragic on many levels, and this is a huge loss for science. But while I was preparing to draw about the Heidelberg Forum, all I could think of was, the participants of the forum will never get to meet Maryam Mirzakhani. The motto of the event “Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation” will never include her, the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the biggest recognition in mathematics. I remembered the “next generation”, those young undergrads, graduate students and postdocs that I met in 2016, looking in awe at these laureates and showering them with questions about research and their life in academia. There was suddenly a sad hole in the idea of scientific events where young people meet senior researchers.

The mailing list of the European Women in Mathematics (EWM) became active with messages of condolences and soon the observation came about that the first woman to receive the Fields Medal was probably the first laureate to die so soon. Mirzakhani’s award was at the same time a recognition for the whole community of female mathematicians. The avalanche of publicity that came after her prize was good for mathematicians (perhaps not too good for her), because that led the media to talk about maths, and the under representation of women in maths. Her loss had touched in particular the community of women in maths. For me, hers was also a loss for the movement among scientists and artists that tries to highlight the role of drawings in the process of doing and communicating science.

As explained in this excellent interview in Quanta magazine, she often drew her maths constructions in big sheets of paper . “Doodling helps her focus” reads the interview. Drawing is often overlooked or not taken seriously by the academic community. Currently, outside our scholarly bubble, there is a boom of creative practices, like illustration and graphic design, where visualization is considered a powerful instrument for communicating (for ex. graphic facilitation). In academia, there is a growing number of initiatives pointing in that direction (for ex. ERCComics and  Cartoon Science). The blog you area reading right now, The Rage of the Blackboard, is a modest contribution in that direction. Scientists do not seem to weigh the power of drawing as a tool, but there is such a big graphic component when we think science that we don’t notice. Mirzakhani did notice, and drew in big sheets of paper.

The impact of the achievements in her short-lived career makes her an icon. Now, we expect an avalanche of tributes and articles in the news and in math events. But Mirzakhani is not the only brilliant female mathematician out there, and meetings where young people are encouraged to exchange with established researchers would benefit immensely from inviting female laureates that are not necessarily Fields or Nobel prize winners. These gatherings could include among their speakers, for example, female winners of the EMS prize and equivalent prizes from other continents. Let us not wait patiently for another woman Fields medalist. Let us meet and learn from the brilliant women we have around us, and celebrate their achievements now.  And perhaps, even doodle science together in big sheets of paper.

 

It really adds up

iaau

It really adds up was the subject in Judy’s e-mail after attending the event It All Adds Up in Oxford on April 16 – 17, 2015. This was the London Mathematical Society’s “Women in Maths Day” which in 2015 was extended to a 4-day event to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the society. The first part was intended for school students, while the second part was addressed to university students, postdocs and academics, which is where Judy and I met. As with many other colleagues there, we talked about starting a career in maths late in life (late 20s, early 30s), and about life-career balance.
We talked about how hard it is to do math when one doesn’t follow the usual path, and about how rewarding it is, with the appropriate support. We were both there because, I think, we are thrilled by maths and at the same time had so many questions and doubts. So how do other people manage? How do other women manage?

Continue reading It really adds up

Matteo Farinella, art for the sake of science.

superlab_matteo
Illustration by Matteo Farinella for SuperLAB

It is rare to find scientists that are also artists, or artists that are also scientists, specially when science seems to be such a closed environment, accessible only to those selected few that have spent years and years of hard studies. However, such art/scien-tists do exist, and in Matteo Farinella I found someone who reached out of his scientific path, to do arts with science at its heart.

I met Matteo on a sunny afternoon in the Southbank Center, one of his favorite places in London. One of my first questions was “is there a name for your job”? to which, after some hesitation, he answered “well, not yet”. Matteo is at the same time the artist and the scientist, and in his work the two worlds intertwine in a dialog where the content is carefully backed with research, accompanied with compelling images to carry the narrative.

Continue reading Matteo Farinella, art for the sake of science.

Pint of Science in Cambridge

pintLast week, the 2015 Pint of Science Festival took place in the UK and in other 8 countries (France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, USA, Ireland, Australia and Germany). In this science festival, scientists and people interested in what they do, gather in bars and talk about the latest news of their research in a convivial environment. I was lucky1 to be in Cambridge at that time and attended two sessions, the one on materials science and the one on astrophysics.  It was such a great experience that I thought I had to share it with everyone, so I’ll give a summary of what I learned in what, according to me, were the most interesting talks. Continue reading Pint of Science in Cambridge

“A Mathematician’s Apology” by G. H. Hardy

Canto Classics, Cambridge University Press.

We start our series of reviews with this classic book about the (making of) mathematics, written by G. H. Hardy. He’s mostly known for his contributions in the field of Analysis, his long-lasting collaboration with J.E. Littlewood and with the gifted S. Ramanujan. This book was written in his old age and when he was no longer productive in mathematics, which explains the melancholic mood of the writing and the well-known quote “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game” (which then he proceeds to justify with facts, naturally).  Continue reading “A Mathematician’s Apology” by G. H. Hardy

Welcome

“The human story does not always unfold like an arithmetical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life they make five, or minus three, and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye”.

Winston Churchill. (Quote seen opening a chapter in a Dissertation by a former student of the Mathematics Department of the University of Munich)