Math is the language of the universe, but we wouldn’t have such a profound view of numbers without the contributions of humanity’s greatest minds. Math transcends cultures, nations, and languages, as evidenced by the diverse origins in our list of nine famous mathematicians. From understanding the spread of disease to computers and interstellar travel, their work has shaped our world.

William Playfair (1759-1823), the inventor of graphs and charts

“No study is less alluring or more dry and tedious than statistics, unless the mind and imagination are set to work.”

Playfair is famous for inventing new ways of graphically displaying data, but some of his most important work was shrouded in secrecy. He was a spy and secret agent on behalf of Great Britain during a war with France, where he was responsible for collapsing French currency by producing counterfeits. The bar graph, line graph, and pie chart are Playfair’s most notable contributions to mathematics.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008), a pioneer in aerospace computing

“I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”

Vaughan was a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African American manager. During World War II, she left her teaching job to work at a government aeronautics laboratory. She initially assumed it would be temporary, but Vaughan went on to become a leader in aerospace computing, paving the way for the use of computers for solving advanced equations. She endured segregation and lower pay but persevered and brought lasting change to NASA and STEM careers.

Alan Turing (1912-1954), the father of computer science and code-breaking

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

In no small feat, Alan Turing’s innovative approach to code-breaking helped the Allies win World War II. He endured persecution during his brief career, and some tried to erase him from history, but it could be argued that the world around us would be quite different if not for Turing’s role in winning WWII, the birth of computer science, and the roots of artificial intelligence. 

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), a groundbreaking academic with no formal training

“I have not trodden through a conventional university course, but I am striking out a new path for myself.”

Born in India to a humble family, Ramanujan had no formal university education, yet he made significant contributions to mathematics during his short life. His theories and investigations of pi were considered unusual and “too unfamiliar” to most academics, but that was the beauty of his approach. Shortly after becoming the youngest member of the prestigious Royal Society, he passed away from complications related to tuberculosis. His achievements are a reminder that anything is possible, no matter the circumstances.

René Descartes (1586-1650), the first modern philosopher and geometry pioneer

“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”

Although more famous for his philosophy, Descartes was also a great mathematician. If you’ve ever solved geometry problems with algebraic equations, you have Descartes to thank for that. He also created the cartesian coordinate system that is still used to plot points along an axis with reference to the origin. His work also paved the way for modern calculus.

Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), award-winning mathematician of hyperbolic geometry 

“The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.”

Dr. Mirzakhani was an Iranian mathematician and professor at Stanford University. Her discoveries focused on a better understanding of the geometry of curvature, and have even improved our understanding of earthquakes. Dr. Mizakhani passed away in 2017 following a battle with cancer, but she profoundly impacted mathematics. Her endless curiosity inspires young women around the world to pursue careers in all that STEM has to offer.

The Most Famous Mathematicians

Carlos Castillo-Chavez (1952-Present), mathematical epidemiologist and mentor of many

“Pi brings you into the world of mathematics, which is magic, mysterious and exciting and always full of challenges for everybody.”

Dr. Castillo-Chavez’s academic focus on how math can model the spread of disease grew out of his work with the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, which he founded at Cornell University in 1996. He is credited with empowering underrepresented populations in STEM and inspiring all to see themselves as scientists capable of greatness.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the culminating figure of the Scientific Revolution

“My powers are ordinary. Only my application brings me success.”

Although Newton was a key figure in the origins of calculus, he is most often regarded for his laws of motion, contributions to understanding gravity, and the physics of light. Newton understood that math is the foundation of the sciences, and he sought ways of expanding our understanding of the universe.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the first computer programmer

“Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”

Lovelace’s unique approach to mathematics culminated in her discovery that machines could be used to perform algorithms. A true master of thinking outside the box, her calculations resulted in her theoretical Analytical Engine, the world’s first concept of a computer. Her ideas were a century ahead of technology, as the first computers were not made until the middle part of the 20th century. 

History’s famous mathematicians come from diverse backgrounds and time periods, but what they have in common are monumental contributions to humanity’s understanding of numbers and their applications. There’s a popular saying in STEM, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” How many of today’s students will take the achievements of those who came before to new frontiers? As history’s great mathematicians show, anything is possible with perseverance, curiosity, and a desire to learn. 
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