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Letter to the Editor: Subtract Math Stereotypes, Add Diversity

By Amanda K. Glazer, Contributing Writer

To the Editor:

A recent Crimson article emphasized that, at least from the perspective of the Harvard Department of Mathematics, “talent in mathematics is identifiable at a young age,” thereby creating the picture of the theoretical mathematician as a child prodigy whose genius was discovered early on. This portrait was further emphasized with the suggestion that moving to more applied math would increase diversity. The lack of diversity in the department, combined with this assertion, seems to imply that pure math is a talent possessed only by those lucky enough to be white and male.

In fact, the image of the child prodigy mathematician is deeply flawed: The field of pure mathematics is littered with brilliant minds who were not child prodigies or even "identifiable talent" at 20 or older, people like Albrecht Fröhlich, Joan Birman, Edward Witten, Stephen Smale, George Green, or Leonard Susskind, among others. In fact, Fröhlich received his Ph.D. in mathematics at 35, and Birman at 41.

Worse, not only does this notion reinforce a racist and sexist stereotype that has been repeatedly proven incorrect (shockingly, white male brains aren’t actually superior at math), but we also ignore a huge amount of mathematical talent when we adhere to this idea.

Even though this idea of the stereotypical mathematician has been around for centuries, we do have it in our power to reverse this perception. To change the current climate of diversity in mathematics, we need to continue to move forward with the positive steps that the University has already begun to make. Current initiatives include revamping advising to increase accessibility to the concentration in mathematics, and policy changes to create a more inclusive environment within the math department spaces—the goal is to a create a math department that is welcoming to all, not just to white male prodigies.

I hope that the math department has begun and will continue to understand that there is no stereotypical math student or faculty member, and that when we buy into these ideal portraits of mathematicians, we are neglecting so many great mathematicians to the detriment of the field itself.

Amanda K. Glazer ’18 is a mathematics concentrator living in Eliot House.

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