Just read the news that Prof Maryam Mirzakhani won the prestigious Fields medal (the equivalent of Nobel prize in Mathematics). She is the first woman to ever win the prize. First of all, congratulations to her. Coming from an Iranian background, being a woman, I’m sure it must have been hard for her.
Women seem to have difficulties in quantitative fields — we see this everywhere. The general belief is that compared to men, women are more creative and intuitive, but less analytical. They take in the world as a whole. Theirs is a romantic understanding, concentrating on the immediate appearance and values of the objects around them. This mode of understanding is to be contrasted with the analytic, classical understanding of men, who seem to mentally divide things in smaller, manageable chunks and drill down to the underlying forms to come to grip with world around them. In giving this description, I’m trying to paraphrase what Richard Pirsig said in the opening chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The analytic mode of understanding lends itself better to quantitative fields like mathematics, and hence the paucity of brilliance among female mathematicians.
Stating the reason that way doesn’t really explain anything. We have to wonder where this gender difference comes from.
Again, the common wisdom is that men and women are wired differently in their brains. Women are considered more right-brained and men, more left-brained. The right hemisphere of the brain is the origin of creative and intuitive thinking while the left side is supposed to handle linear, analytical (and boring) thinking. Here is a simple quiz that can determine whether you are right or left-brained. Hope you get the “right” answer. If the quiz says you are left-brained, you are likely to be in a mathematical field, like programming, finance, accounting, physics, engineering etc. And you are likely to be a man. If you are lucky enough to be right-brained, you are likely to be successful in a creative field. Do leave a note to say how it worked out for you. (In fact, I used the very same quiz to determine whether you believe in God!)
q: When you walk into a theater, classroom, or auditorium (and assuming that there are no other influential factors), you tend to sit on the right side.
q: When taking a test, you prefer an objective style of questions (true/false, multiple choice, matching) rather than subjective (essays).
q: You often have hunches.
q: When you do have hunches, you follow them.
q: You have a place for everything and keep everything in its place.
q: When you are learning a dance step, it is easy for you to learn by imitating the teacher and getting the feel of the music.
q: When you are learning a dance step, it easier for you to learn the sequence of movements and talk your way through the steps.
q: You prefer to keep the same arrangement of your furniture; you don’t like to move occasionally.
q: You can tell approximately how much time passed without a watch.
q: It is easier for you to understand algebra than geometry (speaking in strictly relative terms).
q: It easier for you to remember people’s faces rather than their names.
q: When given the topic “school”, you would prefer to express your feelings through writing rather than drawings.
q: When some one is talking to you, you respond to the word meaning, rather than the person’s word pitch and feelings.
q: When speaking, you use few gestures. (i.e., you very seldom your hands when you talk.)
q: Your desk or your work area is neat and organized.
q: It is easier for you to read to grasp the main ideas rather than specific details.
q: You do your best thinking sitting erect, rather than lying down.
q: You feel more comfortable saying/doing well-reasoned things rather than humorous things.
q: In math, you can explain how you got the answer.
q: You always wear a watch.
q: You keep a journal.
q: You believe there is a right and a wrong way to do everything.
q: You have difficulty following clear step-by-step directions.
q: The expression “Life is just a bowl of cherries” makes no sense to you.
q: You like it when people stick to their schedule.
q: If somebody asked you for directions to get somewhere, you would give clear step-by-step instructions rather than draw a map.
q: If you lost something, you would try to remember where you saw it or used it last rather than look for it everywhere.
q: If you don’t know which way to turn, you would think taking a chance (tossing a coin, for example) is as good as going with your instincts.
q: You are pretty good at math.
q: If you had to assemble something, you’d read the directions first.
q: You are almost always on time getting places.
q: You set goals for yourself so that you don’t slack off.
q: When somebody asks you a question, you turn your head to the left.
q: If you have a tough decision to make, you write down the pros and the cons.
q: You would make a good detective.
q: You are musically inclined.
q: You believe there are two sides to every story.
q: You keep a to-do list.
q: You feel comfortable expressing yourself with words (writing), rather than pictures and colors (drawing).
q: Before you take a stand on an issue, you get all the facts.
q: You often lose track of time.
q: If you forgot someone’s name, you would go through the alphabet until you remembered it.
q: When you are confused, you usually try to figure it out rather than go with your gut instinct.
q: You have considered becoming a lawyer, journalist, or doctor (but not a poet, a politician, an architect, or a dancer).
All the statements in the quiz above are meant to be true of a left-brained person. So if you get close to 100% in your score (or as the rate, if you didn’t actually finish the quiz), you are hopelessly left-brained, and probably in a technical field. If you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum, you are creative and intuitive, but a Fields medal is probably out of the question for you.
So, this is the nature part of the nature-nurture equation of our aptitude for mathematics. Of late, I feel that nurture has a lot more do with what we end up doing. Parents exert a scarily large influence on what their kids become and do with their lives. I’m speaking from personal experience. My daughter used to be of an arty-farty kind, spending all her time sketching, photographing and painting, with a career path pretty much set as a fashion designer like her mom. After my retirement last year, I started spending a lot of time with her, and something totally weird started happening. She topped her school in physics, and started seeing art as a chore rather than leisure. Her favorite subject has now become math. I really thought she was right-brained. Did she change into a left-brain being because of me? Is my left brain so strong that it can actually polarize the brains around me? God, I hope not!