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Julia, a Life in Mathematics

Constance Reid
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
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The Basic Library List Committee recommends this book for acquisition by undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
, on

There is a lot that is fascinating about Julia Robinson. She was a first-rate mathematician whose work had enormous impact. She was the first woman mathematician to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and also the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society. She had to face a number of health problems throughout her life, she died early, but she left quite a significant mark. Most of all, she loved mathematics.

The heart of this book is an article by Julia's sister Constance Reid, entitled "The Autobiography of Julia Robinson". Early in the book, Julia says that as a very young child "I was slow to talk and pronounced words so oddly that no one except Constance could understand me. Since people would ask me a question and look at Constance for the answer, she got into the habit of speaking for me, as she is now." So what we have here is the result of the communion between these two sisters, the mathematician and the biographer of mathematicians. In this edition, the article is accompanied by a large number of photographs which help bring the story to life.

And it's quite a story. Starting from her somewhat isolated childhood, it tells of Julia's discovery of mathematics and of her achievements as a mathematician. It also tells of the barriers she faced, such as the nepotism rules that (together with her health problems) kept her from having a position at Berkeley until after she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. (There's a wonderful scene in which the Berkeley press office gets the news of her election, calls the Mathematics Department, and asks just who this Julia Robinson person was!)

The pictures complement and expand the story. In fact, a number of issues (Berkeley's hiring policies towards women and the "loyalty oath" required in the 1950s, for example) appear only in the captions, and offer a useful complement to the text.

Julia's express desire was that she be remembered for her mathematics, so this book doesn't skimp on that side of things either. In addition to the "Autobiography", it contains three short essays (by Lisl Gaal, Martin Davis, and Yuri Matijasevich) that deal with Julia Robinson's mathematical work, especially that relating to Hilbert's Tenth Problem.

The book is a quick read, but it has real impact. Most of it should be accessible to non-mathematicians, and it seems particularly appropriate for young women aspiring to a career in mathematics. The fact that the royalties from the book will go towards supporting high school students who are interested in Mathematics is icing on the cake. This one's a real winner.

The table of contents is not available.