“Women Becoming Mathematicians” by M. Murray and “Recountings” edited by J. Segel

I break new ground today with a double book review, of Women Becoming Mathematicians by Margaret A.M. Murray and Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians, edited by Joel Segel.

I picked up the WBM some time after hearing Murray speak at MIT, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently.  Murray’s book has more of an academic feel than her talk did (this is code for “it was somewhat less entertaining to read than Murray was to listen to”) but it is remarkably readable given its  serious historical/sociological approach.  Murray conducted interviews with 36 of the 200 or so women who received Ph.D.s in mathematics in the US between 1940 and 1959; she weaves their stories together so that each chapter covers a single life stage (childhood, high school, undergraduate years, etc.) of all of the women.  Her main goal is to display the diversity of their paths before and after the Ph.D., and in particular to challenge what she calls the “myth of the mathematical life course” — in brief, the view that mathematicians are mathematically gifted as youths, that they proceed swiftly through an undergraduate math major, directly to graduate school at a prestigious university, do brilliant research work as young academics, achieve tenure, and end their careers overseeing students who carry out parts of a large research program while following the same path.  I thought that Murray did a wonderful job with both halves of her goal, and I think her book is well worth a read by anyone interested in the sociology of the mathematical community.  Really I have only one complaint: each of the 32 women who are quoted extensively come along with a whole host of other names and details (professors, colleagues, etc.) and it can become difficult to keep track of which life story is whose.  Luckily there is a very thorough index to help sort things out.

At the same time I was reading WBM, I also read Recountings, a collection of interviews with 12 professors of mathematics at MIT and Fagi Levinson, the wife of deceased professor Norman Levinson.  Because the text is entirely personal reminisces, it doesn’t have a thesis and is a much quicker read than WBM.  There is some frustrating unevenness in the interviews, both because the questions varied a lot (Segel tailored them to the individuals and seems to have been happy to let the conversations wander) and, of course, because some of the men have more compelling voices than others.  Overall, I enjoyed reading Recountings, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to someone who didn’t have some sort of personal connection to the MIT math department.  There were also some features that irritated me: the order of interviews didn’t always make sense (sometimes Segel would refer to something that another interviewee mentioned in an interview that appears later in the book); there are almost no women in the book and Segel’s brief discussion of this in the introduction, while well-intentioned, is totally lame; and, unforgivably, there is no index.

I really enjoyed reading the two books side-by-side, and I think they complement each other very well; especially, WBM gives some broader context for the interviews in Recountings.  The subjects of the two books are roughly contemporaries (the women span a longer era, and a few of the younger MIT interviewees, like Steve Kleiman, are really a generation later), but the men have a much narrower spread of life experiences than the women (who cover the spectrum from “never held an academic position after the Ph.D.” to Cathleen Morawetz).  In fact, the MIT guys really are the ones mythologized in Murray’s myth of the mathematical life course — post-war mathematicians who spent much of their educations at places like the IAS and Harvard and who were part of the transformation of math departments around the country into the research-focused model we have today.  Both books stand on their own (though WBM is more important and of greater general interest), but I feel that I got a bit extra from the experience of reading them together.

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