3-19-19 Karen Uhlenbeck is first woman to win prestigious maths Abel prize
Mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck has become the first woman to win the Abel prize, sometimes called the Nobel prize of mathematics. She has been awarded the 6 million Norwegian kroner ($700,000) prize for her work in the fields of gauge theory and geometric analysis, which have been credited with far-reaching impact in both mathematics and physics. Gauge theory underpins much of modern theoretical physics, and is integral to cutting-edge research in particle physics, general relativity and string theory. Her work laid the foundations for one of the major milestones of 20th–century physics, the unification of two of the four fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. “The holy grail in physics has always been unification of forces,” says Jim Al-Khalili at the University of Surrey, UK, who gave a talk about Uhlenbeck’s prizewinning work today. “She has made a big contribution to the mathematics that allowed us to progress some considerable way along this path.” Among her other meaningful contributions was her work on the calculus of variations, the study of how small changes in one quantity can help find the minimum or maximum value of another. A real-world example comes in blowing soap bubbles, which always adjust their shape so that their surface area is minimised. Predicting comparable structures in higher dimensions is enormously challenging, but Uhlenbeck’s work has greatly helped. Uhlenbeck has always blazed a trail for women in mathematics. Her plenary lecture at the 1990’s International Congress of Mathematicians was the first delivered by a woman since Emmy Noether in 1932.
3-19-19 Bubble maths researcher wins top award
One of the highest prizes for mathematics has been awarded to Prof Karen Uhlenbeck of the University of Texas in Austin, US. Prof Uhlenbeck received the Abel Prize for her work on "minimal surfaces" such as soap bubbles. She is the first woman to win the £530,000 award since it was established in 2002. The award has been made by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo. The chair of the award committee, Hans Munthe-Kaas, said that her work had "dramatically changed the mathematical landscape". "Her theories have revolutionised our understanding of minimal surfaces, such as more general minimisation problems in higher dimensions," he said. An everyday example of a "minimal surface" is a soap bubble. They are interesting from a mathematical point of view in that they pull the soap film into the shape of the least surface - a perfect sphere. Representing and manipulating soap bubbles mathematically enables researchers to model the behaviour of physical phenomena, such as electrical fields. Prof Uhlenbeck's maths has given theoretical physicists the tools with which to tackle some of their greatest puzzles, such as the behaviour of sub-atomic particles and the unification of electromagnetism and nuclear forces. As well as her ground breaking work, Prof Uhlenbeck has been a role model in her field, according to Prof Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist at Surrey University and broadcaster. "Young mathematicians not only know of her work, but they also know how hard she has worked to try and promote maths and encourage young women to get into the field," he told BBC News. Prof Uhlenbeck wanted to be a scientist when she was a young girl, but she became drawn to mathematics when she had started her degree at the University of Michigan.
3-8-19 Mae Jemison: the astronaut plotting a journey to other stars
Best known as the first black woman to go into space, Mae Jemison has done much more in her remarkable career as an engineer, doctor and science ambassador. Now, she is leading the 100 Year Starship project, an effort to drive forward the capability for interstellar travel within the next century. Jemison grew up in Chicago in the 1960s. She always had a keen interest in science, but also wanted to be a professional dancer. She enrolled at Stanford University at the age of 16 and graduated in chemical engineering, then faced a difficult choice to study medicine or become a dancer. “My mother said you can always dance if you’re a doctor but you can’t necessarily doctor if you’re a dancer,” she said in an interview on StarTalk Radio. After gaining her medical degree, she worked as a general practitioner, then joined the Peace Corps as a medical officer and worked in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In 1987, she applied for NASA’s astronaut programme and was one of 15 candidates selected from 2000 applicants. Jemison got to space in 1992, on the 50th space shuttle flight, and orbited Earth 126 times. “I was really irritated when I joined the astronaut programme because when I was a little girl, I figured by the time I was old enough to be an astronaut, I would be hanging out at least on Mars,” she said on StarTalk Radio. She believes the lack of progress is not down to engineering limitations, but a lack of public commitment to space exploration. “That’s why we have to bring so many people in and include them in things. People didn’t see why it made a difference,” she said. With her current project, she is determined to rectify that by including people with a broader range of backgrounds and skills, and showing that pushing the frontiers in space can reap benefits for life on Earth. The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which she established in honour of her mother, was awarded a grant from the US government agency DARPA to pursue the radical leaps in our capabilities needed to achieve interstellar flight.
3-8-19 The Lebanese female air force pilots breaking barriers
Most women serving in the Lebanese armed forces work in administrative or logistical roles, but its top commander is trying to change this, the BBC's Eloise Alanna reports. Gen Joseph Aoun says bolstering women's roles is among his top priorities, with the ultimate aim of getting them into combat roles. Women are not allowed to work on the front line in the army, but there is no such rule in the air force. Six women have so far applied to be pilots in the air force - they went through testing and only two qualified. They are 1st Lieutenant Chantal Kallas, 27, and 1st Lieutenant Rita Zaher, 26. Rita says she met resistance when she first decided to join the armed forces, with many seeing her as "taking a man's job". Chantal wanted to become a pilot from a young age but her parents were worried she would not be able to juggle work and family life. Despite the social pressures, she followed through with her plan. "In my opinion, a woman has to overcome all of the challenges with their family or society to realise her ambition," she says. Twenty-four year old Manar Eskandar is a sergeant and the first female mechanic in the air force. When she started out, Manar was given mainly administrative tasks. But she later asked to be given a real mechanic's work - and her superiors agreed. "When I first came here my male colleagues looked at me with sympathy, like I needed help. But little by little I have become stronger in my job and started doing work that they can't do themselves," Manar says. "I have small hands so sometimes I can do things they can't, like reaching into areas of the engine they can't." Chantal says times are changing for women in the Lebanese armed forces. "Everyone in the air force is helping us and encouraging us to fulfil our ambition, and this is why perceptions are changing and men have become more accepting of women in combat positions and emancipating women in society."
3-2-19 Dorji Dema: A female archer taking aim at sexism
Traditional Bhutanese archery is for men only - even though the country's women archers have had great success in the modern sport. As Michelle Jana Chan reports, Olympic archer Dorji Dema is assembling a team of women to put this right. I hope I've got the right house… I walk past a potato patch to the front door. There's no knocker, so I call out. Dorji Dema appears at the doorway, a visibly toned and youthful 35-year-old in a tight orange T-shirt. She's an archer, and archery is Bhutan's national sport. Long associated with victories over invading forces, archery has been practised for centuries here. Most villages have at least one range and contests are integral to the numerous religious festivals. As I travelled across Bhutan, inside its monasteries and temples I'd seen statues and paintings of figures holding bamboo bows, often pulled back taut, aimed at their enemies. Some were male, others fantastical creatures; none looked anything like the woman in front of me. Dorji smiles shyly and apologises for her English. Shorter than me, with a friendly smile and her hair tied back with a ribbon, she doesn't fill me with fear, but Bhutanese men quake when she lifts her weapon. I remove my shoes and enter her home. A wall is covered with certificates, medals and security passes from international archery competitions - in venues from Thailand to Sri Lanka - and there are polished trophies on a shelf. "It's not the winning, of course," Dorji says. "It's the participating." "Surely not," I reply sceptically. "You must have wanted to win." She shakes her head. That's very Bhutanese. Not a lack of ambition or passion, but congeniality, the sense of the collaborative. Tournaments in Bhutan are often as much about fun as the frenzy of competing. They are accompanied by raucous singing, boo-ing, cheering, dancing and sometimes even heavy drinking by contestants. Archery is much more than just a sport. "In the past, women weren't even allowed to touch a bow. It was considered bad luck," she says. "But now we should be equal."
2-5-19 Women seem to have younger brains than men the same age
Women have younger brains than men the same age. A study basing age on metabolism rather than birth date found an average 3.8 year difference between men and women. The discovery may help explain why women are more likely than men to stay mentally sharp in their later years. All brains get smaller with age, and it was already known that men’s tend to shrink at a faster rate. To investigate the differences further, Manu Goyal at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and colleagues looked at the brains of 205 men and women ranging in age from 20 to 82. They used positron emission tomography, an imaging technique that helps uncover brain metabolism by measuring the flow of oxygen and glucose. The brain consumes large amounts of glucose for energy, but the pattern of use alters with age. They found that metabolic brain ageing correlated with chronological ageing in both men and women, but that at any given age women’s brains were younger, metabolically speaking, than men’s. “It’s not that men’s brains age faster — they start adulthood about three years older than women, and that persists throughout life,” says Goyal. “What we don’t know is what it means. I think this could mean that the reason women don’t experience as much cognitive decline in later years is because their brains are effectively younger, and we’re currently working on a study to confirm that.”