Saturday, May 20, 2017

Julia Robinson, a rare mathematical woman

Much like Germany's David Hilbert, American mathematician Julia Robinson saw her breed as a single nation, "without distinction of geographical origins, race, creed, sex, age, or even time." (quoted in Marcus du Sautoy)

Born in Missouri, Julia Bowman lost her mother and was raised by her grandmother in the Arizona desert. A childhood illness afforded lots of time to think. After marrying a fellow mathematician, Rafael Robinson, she settled in California. Advised against having children by her physician, she devoted her energy to mathematics, tackling Hilbert's tenth problem of existential definability.

After spending much time on this problem, she collaborated with a twenty-year-old Russian mathematician, Yuri Matiyasevich, and visited him in Leningrad. Together they proved Hilbert's tenth problem unsolvable. Julia was delighted to meet the young man, opining that she must have been waiting for him to be born and grow up so they could work together on their proof.

Robinson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, the first woman mathematician to receive this honour. She received a professorship at Berkeley the same year. In 1983, she was elected president of the American Mathematical Society, again the first woman to hold this post. Sadly, she died of leukemia before her term was complete.

Each year, in her honour, The American Institute of Mathematical Sciences holds the Julia Robinson Mathmatics Festival.

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