Tuesday, June 13, 2017

SRPS Women in STEM: Carolyn Eisele - mathematics historian

Carolyn Eisele (June 13, 1902 – January 15, 2000) was a mathematician, math educator, and a brilliant math historian, whose greatest contribution to the field was her research on the "mathematical method" devised by 19th century philosopher, mathematician and scientist, Charles Peirce. Through her diligent and detailed study, she brought about a better understanding of his philosophy of pragmatism, inspired by his study of mathematics.

Here's where I admit it had never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a math historian. Sure, I know there are science historians, so I don't know why I never thought the same could be applied to the study of mathematics. So you can imagine that when I first read about Carolyn Eisele my inner history nerd was immediately intrigued.

Carolyn Eisele didn't set out to become a math historian. Sure, she was a remarkable young woman who excelled at mathematics at a time when there were few women attending college, much less studying math or science. She graduated from Hunter College in 1923, and earned her master's in mathematics and education from Columbia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1923.

She would have gone on to earn a Ph.D. at Columbia as well, but they didn't offer that level of education to women. (!!) So instead she took differential geometry classes at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California. Sadly, she wasn't able to earn her degree due to a family illness that forced her to return to New York.

She returned to her alma mater Hunter College as a mathematics instructor, where she stayed for her entire career.

In 1947, though, her life took an unexpected and fortuitous turn. While doing research at the Columbia University library for a new class she was to teach -- history of math -- she came across a manuscript by Charles Sanders Peirce discussing his interpretation of Fibonacci's Liber Abaci -- a document published in 1202 offering evidence of the superior efficiency of doing calculations using Arabic numbers compared to Roman numerals.

The most important aspect of her research was her analysis of Peirce's mathematical method -- his application of mathematical principles to his philosophical work. She saw that his work on mathematics and science and his work on philosophy and history were not two distinct aspects of his intellect, but instead they worked together to inform his entire world-view.

It was through her meticulous research to understand his philosophy that she was able to make it more accessible to a wider audience. That's what historians do, really. She wasn't a stereotypical brilliant mathematician working in a laboratory in some college math department, trying to solve complex problems and writing equations on a chalkboard. She was a brilliant mathematician working in the library, reading about someone else's complex ideas and thinking about how best to share her findings with the world. This kind of work requires a level of mathematic genius that in some ways may be even more impressive, since she had to be able to understand and interpret the ideas of another mathematics genius.

Read more about the importance of her pioneering research on Charles Peirce's works [PDF].

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