Friday, June 15, 2012

Can mathematics maximize happiness?

     My post for last Monday (11 June 2012) offered a link I would like to repeat:  to an article by Judy Green, "How Many Women Mathematicians Can You Name?"  (first published in Math Horizons in 2001).  One of the seven names in Green's opening paragraph is "Sofia Kovalevskaia" (1850 - 1891); this prizewinning Russian mathematician (whose name appears with a variety of spellings, including "Sophia Kovalevsky" and "Sonya Kovalevskaya") was also a writer of literary work -- several novels, a play, a memoir, some poetry.  

     Little Sparrow: A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky  by Don Kennedy (Ohio University Press, 1983) is cited in an well-written and interesting article by Marijke Boucherie that focuses on a short story, "Too Much Happiness," written by Alice Munro about Sofia Kovalevsky.  The story appears in Munro's collection, likewise called Too Much Happiness, published in 2009 by Knopf -- and the Knopf website offers an excerpt from the title story.
     Can happiness come from mathematics?  Munro's story raises the question; in addressing the question, Boucherie's article offers this quote from Kennedy's portrait of Kovalevsky:

(by Sofia Kovalevsky)    
   In what manner should we act in the future    
to make our common life happier?    
Mathematically we could have stated this question    
in this manner:  given a definite function     
(in this case our happiness),    
which depends upon many variables (namely    
our monetary resources, the possibility     
of living in a pleasant place and society     
and so forth) --    
in what manner can the variables be defined    
so that the given happiness function    
will reach a maximum?    
Needless to say we are unable    
 to solve the problem    

     For readers interested in learning about more math-women, a host of biographical sketches are available at the website for AWM -- the Association for Women in Mathematics.  Each year this organization conducts a student essay contest  -- and the subject of each essay is based on an interview with a math-woman.  Here is a link to essay-contest results, a host of well-written stories about interesting (but mostly not-famous) mathematicians.
     About the spelling of her name:  "Kovalevsky" seems to be widespread in recent texts but Russian tradition protests this masculine version --  the feminine form of the name is "Kovalevskaya."

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