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Remembering the First Female Mathematician to Receive a National Medal of Science

Cathleen Morawetz: Problem-solver, teacher, trailblazer, and working mom

You may not know her—or the theorems she invented—by name, but chances are Cathleen Morawetz’s work has had an impact on your daily life, albeit indirectly. Her remarkable achievements in mathematics have influenced numerous practical applications in aerodynamics, acoustics, and optics. But, if her research hasn’t touched your world, perhaps her story will.

Dr. Morawetz passed away on August 8, 2017 at the age of 94. Her work in mathematics spanned seven decades, commencing at a time when few women pursued professional careers—and even fewer aspired to be mathematicians. While her own mother chose family over a career in mathematics, Dr. Morawetz managed to pursue both.

She became pregnant with her first child while studying for her doctorate and went on to have three more children, and an extraordinary career in mathematics. Along the way, she racked up a number of impressive firsts, including:

  • First woman to serve as Director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University
  • President of the American Mathematical Society, where she was the first woman to deliver their distinguished Gibbs lecture
  • First female mathematician to receive a National Medal of Science
  • Morawetz was also twice a Guggenheim Fellow, served as a Trustee of Princeton University and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and held numerous honorary degrees.

The “Morawetz inequality”: It’s not what you think

Among her many achievements, Dr. Morawetz is noted for inventing a theorem known as the “Morawetz inequality.” This scientific method explains the scattering of sound, light, water, and gravitational waves off objects. In a nutshell, Morawetz proved that you can’t eliminate shock waves, but you can design around them.

Ironically, the “Morawetz inequality” also serves as a nice metaphor for her storied career in what remains today a male-dominated field. She couldn’t eliminate the obstacles, but she certainly found a way to work around them.

If you’re interested in learning more about the amazing life and career of Cathleen Morawetz, and the people she credited with encouraging her to pursue what she once jokingly referred to as “unladylike” ambitions, check out the video interview series Science Lives, produced by the Simons Foundation.

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