Given a Diophantine equation with any number of unknown quantities and with rational integral numerical coefficients: To devise a process according to which it can be determined in a finite number of operations whether the equation is solvable in rational integers.
—Hilbert's Tenth Problem
Born this day in 1919: Julia Robinson (1919–1985), eminent mathematician who contributed to the fields of logic and number theory and whose collaboration solved Hibert’s Tenth Problem
Julia Robinson was born Julia Bowman in St. Louis, Missouri. At age 16 she began attending San Diego State College, majoring in mathematics. She had her share of troubles growing up. Her mother died when she was two. She contracted both scarlet fever and rheumatic fever when she was nine (causing her to miss two years of school), and these illnesses would later greatly affect her health. While she was a sophomore in college, her father committed suicide.
In her senior year she transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. She earned a BA in 1940 and an MA in 1941. She married her former professor, Raphael Robinson, in 1941. In 1948 she earned a PhD in mathematics.
Robinson made important contributions to mathematics (which Femilouge would enumerate here if we even remotely understood them), but is most famous for her role in solving David Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, one of 23 key problems of mathematics identified by the distinguished German mathematician in 1900.
Nepotism rules kept her from higher-ranking positions at Berkeley until she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1975). She was the first woman awarded membership. She was also the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society (1983), was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1984), and received a MacArthur Foundation grant (1983).
These dry facts, however, can hardly demonstrate Robinson’s passion and joy in pursuing mathematics. Her ambition was not for the accolades that were eventually heaped upon her, but for the answers. When 22-year-old Russian mathematician Yuri Matijasevich put the final puzzle piece into Hilbert’s Tenth, she wrote to him,
…now I know it is true, it is beautiful, it is wonderful. If you really are 22, I am especially pleased to think that when I first started the problem, you were a baby and I just had to wait for you to grow up!Check out this trailer for a documentary about her work, Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, by George Csiscery.
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