Dusa McDuff bigraphy, stories - Mathematician

Dusa McDuff : biography

18 October 1945 -

Dusa McDuff (born 18 October 1945) is an English mathematician whose work on symplectic geometry was recognized by the first Satter Prize, selection as a Noether Lecturer, and fellowship in the Royal Society.

Early life and education

Margaret Dusa Waddington was born in London, England, on 18 October 1945 to noted biologist Conrad Hal Waddington and Edinburgh architect Justin Blanco White. Justin was the daughter of Amber Reeves, the noted feminist and lover of H. G. Wells and an author in her own right. Though born in London, McDuff grew up in Scotland, where her father was appointed Professor of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. McDuff was educated at a girls school in Edinburgh and, although the standard was lower than at the corresponding boys' school, McDuff had an exceptionally good mathematics teacher. She writes:

I always wanted to be a mathematician (apart from a time when I was eleven when I wanted to be a farmer's wife), and assumed that I would have a career, but I had no idea how to go about it: I didn't realize that the choices which one made about education were important and I had no idea that I might experience real difficulties and conflicts in reconciling the demands of a career with life as a woman.

Turning down a scholarship to the University of Cambridge to stay with her boyfriend in Scotland, she enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. Awarded a B.Sc. in 1967, McDuff eventually matriculated as a doctoral student at the Girton College, Cambridge. Here, under the guidance of mathematician George A. Reid, McDuff worked on problems in functional analysis. She solved a difficult problem on von Neumann algebras, constructing infinitely many different factors of type II1, and published the work in the Annals of Mathematics.

After completing her doctorate in 1971 McDuff was appointed to a two-year Science Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship at Cambridge. Following her husband, McDuff left for a six month visit to Moscow. Her husband was studying the Russian Symbolist poet Innokenty Annensky and Dusa had no specific plans, yet it would turn out to be a very profitable visit for her mathematically. There, she met Israel Gelfand in Moscow who gave her a deeper appreciation of mathematics. McDuff later wrote: [My collaboration with him]... was not planned: it happened that his was the only name which came to mind when I had to fill out a form in the Inotdel office. The first thing that Gel'fand told me was that he was much more interested in the fact that my husband was studying the Russian Symbolist poet Innokenty Annensky than that I had found infinitely many type II-sub-one factors, but then he proceeded to open my eyes to the world of mathematics. It was a wonderful education, in which reading Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri played as important a role as learning about Lie groups or reading Cartan and Eilenberg. Gel'fand amazed me by talking of mathematics as though it were poetry. He once said about a long paper bristling with formulas that it contained the vague beginnings of an idea which he could only hint at and which he had never managed to bring out more clearly. I had always thought of mathematics as being much more straightforward: a formula is a formula, and an algebra is an algebra, but Gel'fand found hedgehogs lurking in the rows of his spectral sequences!

On returning to Cambridge, McDuff started attending Frank Adams's topology lectures and was soon invited to teach at the University of York. Here she "essentially wrote a second PhD" while working with Graeme Segal. At this time a position at MIT opened up for her, reserved for visiting female mathematicians. Her career as a mathematician started picking up after her stint at MIT and soon she was accepted to the Institute for Advanced Study where she worked with Segal on the Atiyah–Segal completion theorem. She then returned to England where she was given lectureship at the University of Warwick.

Around this time she met renowned mathematician John Milnor who was then based in Princeton University. In order to live closer to him she took up an (untenured) assistant professorship at the Stony Brook University. Now an independent mathematician, she started working on the relationship between diffeomorphisms and the classifying space for foliations. She has since taken up symplectic topology. In the spring of 1985, McDuff attended the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in Paris to study Mikhael Gromov's work on elliptic methods. Since 2007, she has held the Helen Lyttle Kimmel chair at Barnard College.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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