"Knowledge goes hand in hand with Imagination" - HSE and the New School honor Joan Birman on the Women in Mathematics Day

12 May, 14:00

The Faculty of Mathematics of the Higher School of Economics celebrated the Day of Women in Mathematics at the site of the New School. This year's event was dedicated to Joan Birman, who will turn 93 on May 30. Birman is an outstanding mathematician, a specialist in topology, and a leading expert in study of knots.

Vladimir Shastin, a junior researcher at the Department of Higher Geometry and Topology of Lomonosov MSU, talked about the scientific component of Birman's work. Birman specialized in the study of braids. The braid can be represented as an interweaving of “threads”. Threads can be tangled, so it can be difficult to tell if two braids are equal. Joan Bierman proved, for example, that it is possible to implement a computer program that quickly solves the problem of braid equality.

Vladimir Shastin on WMID in The New School
Vladimir Shastin on WMID in The New School

Alexandra Skripchenko, Dean of the HSE Faculty of Mathematics, talked about Joan's vivid biography. Her parents, immigrants of Jewish origin, themselves had only primary education but encouraged their children to pursue learning and science studies. All their 4 children (all girls) got higher education, and three of them became scientists.

Joan demonstrated a great interest in mathematics at school. And already at that time, her teachers did not have enough knowledge to answer all the questions of the future mathematician. Birman tried few colleges (the teaching level was not good enough in any of them). After that Joan finally received a bachelor's degree from Barnard College — a private women's liberal arts college and then a master's degree in physics from Columbia University.

Despite the brilliant success, Birman had to gradually leave his scientific career for family. At that time, it was almost impossible for a woman to both pursue a career and raise children. It was only after the birth of her third child that Joan began to attend evening courses again and study for her “pure mathematics” thesis. The pause “for family reasons” cost Birman 15 years — she received her Ph.D. only at the age of 41.

Joan started to teach knot theory and later published a monograph Braids, Links, and Mapping Class Groups. Only then did her career start to accelerate. The book has become a fundamental one and is now familiar to all who study the subject.

As for now Joan does not teach but holds the position of Professor Emeritus. On her savings, Birman established two scholarships to support women in mathematics. The first is named after her sister, Ruth Lyttle Satter. It is awarded to women who have achieved significant results in mathematics. Among its laureates is, for example, Maryam Mirzakhani,  the first woman to receive the Fields Medal.

“If you look at the list of people who have received this award, it looks very impressive even without any gender notion. These are just outstanding mathematicians who also turned out to be women, ” said Alexandra Skripchenko.

The second scholarship is not aimed at recognized scientists. It was established by Joan Birman for those women who had to take a break in their scientific career for family reasons, as she did herself.

Alexandra Skripchenko on WIMD in The New School
Alexandra Skripchenko on WIMD in The New School

“In addition to being an outstanding mathematician and having a lot of interesting results, Joan Birman is a very charming person who is very interesting and easy to communicate with. It would be possible to make a film about her, her biography is quite suitable for a Hollywood script. It may well motivate people —and not just women. Her story tells is that if there is a thing that you are created for, you should do it regardless of any stereotypes, circumstances, and even your own fears,” Skripchenko added.

Birman herself recorded an address to the guests of the event. “Mathematics is a very creative and imaginative area. And students who think about the big open problems must keep doing this. Once you understand it you have wonderful feeling of discovering something new and having aт idea. We call an aha moment. When all of a sudden you realize how to approach a problem in a new and different way. And this requires knowledge, yes, but the knowledge goes hand in hand with your imagination”.