The Best Math Problem Solver is a Girl

At the 2011 IMO, Lisa Sauermann received yet another gold medal. Now she tops the Hall of Fame of the IMO with four gold medals and one silver medal.

In addition, in 2011 she achieved the absolute best individual result and was the only person with a perfect score. In previous years, there were several girls who tied for first place, but she is the first girl ever to have an absolute rank of 1.

I told you so. In my 2009 essay Is There Hope for a Female Fields Medalist?, I predicted that a girl will soon become an absolute champion of the IMO.

In that essay I draw a parallel between the absolute champion of IMO and a Fields medalist. Indeed, we get one of each per year. Lisa Sauermann is the best math problem solver in her year. Will she grow up to receive a Fields medal? I am not so sure: the medal is still unfriendly to women. Lisa Sauermann is the best math problem solver ever. Will she grow up to be the best mathematician of our century? I wonder.



  1. anon:

    I feel a little sorry for her, with all the pressure she is no doubt starting to feel (and I’d feel just as sorry for her if she were a boy). Is there really any correlation between successful research math and competitioneering? Many people such as T. Tao have written extensively about how research mathematics is less about talent and more about hard, diligent work.

  2. legion:

    You have sullied Lisa’s remarkable achievement by politicizing it and saying that the “Fields is unfriendly to women”. This evokes images of mathematicians sitting in their dusty offices and deliberately passing over worthy female mathematicians in favor of men, on the basis of gender alone. You could not possibly have any evidence of this. Everyone acknowledges that more needs to be done to encourage girls to do mathematics at an earlier age, but here you are letting your sympathy for girls and mathematics get ahead of your better judgement.

  3. Peter:

    Great post (as is the older one).

    I must say, I admire your tolerance for troll comments; I would have deleted @legion’s comment without a second thought. It is mansplaining in its purest form…

  4. legion:

    Tanya, if you will allow me, without wanting to crowd your comment space, I’d like to address Peter’s dismissiveness. The fact that there is a word with negative connotations to categorize remarks like mine can not be in lieu of the evidence I asked for. Admittedly, I have only recently hung out on the insides of math departments - and I am not a power-that-be - but I find that suggestion that the hurdle to great women mathematicians is the Fields selection committee pretty far-fetched. I am willing to be enlightened.

    Saying that there are fewer women in mathematics today is not an insult to women, there are causes of it, and causes that can be fixed. It could well be that the mathematics community perpetuates these causes and is part of the problem. However, holding an institution at fault for not recognizing contributions that aren’t there is getting the problem backwards. Or am I ill-informed? Unlike Peter, I have no intention of arguing from a stance rather than with facts.

  5. kt:

    I am really impressed by her achievement! Thanks for bringing it to our attention — I did not know she’d gotten 100% this year.

    @legion, read carefully: Tanya never said the Fields selection committee is unfriendly to women. That is a thoughtless and illogical characterization. Read the linked article for a bit more nuance.

  6. Peter:

    @Legion. I’m glad you don’t really seems to be a troll (and I apologize for my own trolling earlier).

    If you seek evidence for institutional failure, you have to start much earlier. The problem with the lack of female researchers in mathematics seems to have a lot do with the fact that already as girls, women more discouraged to pursue a career in mathematics. No pursue, no researchers, no accomplishments. When, on the other hand, the IMO in recent years actively encourages more girls/women to participate and one then sees that they easily compete at the same level, I would in fact agree with Tanya that this is a clear indicator that the institutions have not been not working properly. For more hard data, I can suggest Ivelisse Rubio’s talk “Women and minorities in mathematics” at the UofM earlier this year.

    Regarding the Fields medal, there is, e.g., the problem that until quite recently the female researchers often took a significant break from research to start a family. Getting back into research is hard enough, but to “make it” before 40 was essentially impossible. As much as I understand Field’s original concerns, an easy fix could have been to take this fact into account — much like research funding agencies do these days.

  7. legion:

    “That is a thoughtless and illogical characterization.”

    I suppose it is my misunderstanding then to take “the medal” in the medal is still unfriendly to women to be a synecdoche for the Fields committee rather than something else and unfriendly to mean something other than, well, bias. My intention was to point out how unfortunate that phrase was as opposed to claiming that Tanya was herself unfairly aggrieved.

    The only nuance introduced in the other article, which I have read, is that because the Fields is age delimited, which makes it hard for women who choose to have families. However, two sentences further, the evidence of the Wolf and the Abel does not seem to support this claim. Not that I am convinced of the falsity of the first hypothesis - we need more data. The first-order effect, as Tanya rightly notes, and this stands no matter which way you coddle it, is that only recently has it been feasible for women to have careers in mathematics with the same freedom of choice that men have. The genesis and decay of this has very little to do with mathematicians/Fields committees/IMO committees.

    That said, as some one who did not learn how to argue on the internet (but is quickly learning its ways) I will retreat, since I know when I am not welcome. :)

  8. Peter:

    Apologies for my monstrous typos…

  9. legion:

    @Peter: did not see your comment in time for the last one. But I think we are essentially saying the same thing. I will watch Ivelisse Rubio’s talk later today.

  10. The Best Young Math Problem Solver in the World Is a Girl | Friendly Atheist:

    […] of women in math, you’ve all seen Vi Hart‘s latest video, right? Excellent.(via Tanya Khovanova) This entry was posted in General, Math. Bookmark the permalink.← SSA 2011: Dave Silverman on […]

  11. Andrei Zelevinsky:

    Why not the best mathematician of all times? After all, the so called “great mathematicians” (Euler, Gauss, Riemann and others) never won an IMO or Fields medal - what a bunch of losers. :)

  12. Christian Reiher Talk « Heszterhegyi:

    […] Today’s combinatorics seminar at Alfréd Rényi was by Christian Reiher, the second-most successful International Math Olympiad competitor so far, and still the top when I was the alternate in 2007. (He was recently overtaken by Lisa Sauermann, which is impressive enough itself that it seems superfluous to point out that she also broke several records for girls’ IMO performance.) […]

  13. Nabih Bawazir:

    I think now is Evgenia Malinnikova’s era to get Field’s medal Her research about Biot-Savart operator may be can make she get Fileds Medal (I think)

  14. john t:

    Why is the fact that more men than women are high-achieving mathematicians a problem to be solved or deplored? That doesn’t take anything away either from the women who are high-achieving mathematicians, or the women who choose to devote time to their families which is sufficient to prevent them from getting a long way further in mathematics.

  15. Robert Treves:

    Is there somewhere we can bet on who will win a Fields Medal, not just in 2014, but some time in the future? I wonder what odds might be offered in respect of Lisa Sauermann? Another young person to watch is Arran Fernandez, the youngest ever Senior Wrangler (top maths undergraduate) at Cambridge University in England, by nearly 2 years. Senior Wranglers have included Cayley, Stokes, Pell, Littlewood, Ramsey, Coxeter, Bondi, Swinnerton-Dyer and Ben Green. Marshall, Maxwell, Thomson and Kelvin came 2nd; Hardy, 4th; Russell, 7th.

  16. RichardDawkinsFTW:

    The comment about “fields medal unfriendly towards women” absolutely disgusts me.

    It’s even more disgusting then the politically correct ventings they said at mpfg. Certainly there is absolutely no reason to believe all humans are created equal in any way.

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