ALD22: Professor Maryna Viazovska, Mathematician

Maryna Viazovska

Professor Maryna Viazovska

Maryna Viazovska, Марина Вязовська, is a mathematician known for her work in sphere packing. In 2022, she became only the second woman to win the Fields Medal.

Born in Kyiv in 1984, Viazovska competed in national and international mathematics Olympiads throughout her late teens and early 20s. She earnt her masters degree from University of Kaiserslautern in 2007, her PhD from the Institute of Mathematics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in 2010 and a second doctorate from University of Bonn in 2013. She now works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

The sphere-packing problem asks how spheres can be packed together, in a particular number of dimensions, in the densest possible way. It’s a problem that fascinated Johannes Kepler, (born 1571), who was interested in how best to stack cannonballs. Although it’s easy to see how cannonballs naturally stack, it’s not so easy to prove that a pyramid is the most mathematically efficient way to pack them. That problem was not solved in three dimensions until Thomas Hales in 1998, and it required long and complex computer calculations.

Viazovska proved that an arrangement called the E8 lattice is the densest solution for eight dimensions with a proof that was mathematically very simple. Along with collaborators, she solved the problem for 24 dimensions using the Leech lattice. She also proved that the E8 lattice and Leech lattice are universally optimal, a discovery “on a par with the great breakthroughs of the 19th century”.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Rukhmabai Raut, Physician

Rukhmabai Raut

Dr Rukhmabai Raut

Rukhmabai Raut was the second woman to become a practising physician in India.

Born in 1864 in South Bombay, India, Rukhmabai’s father died when she was two years old. Six years later, her mother, Jayantibai Save, married Sakharam Arjun Raut, a respected physician and social activist in Mumbai who educated his step-daughter at home and encouraged her ambition to study medicine.

Rukhmabai Raut was married to a 19 year old man when she was 11 years old, an arrangement which she and her family resisted despite the fact that it was Hindu custom. She continued to live at home and her husband ignored her until 1885 when, perhaps interested in her dowry, he sought “restitution of conjugal rights”. After years of legal battles, he relinquished his claim over her, accepting instead a payment of 2,000 rupees. Her case was widely covered in India and Europe, provoking an intense debate about social reform and the age of consent in British India, which was eventually raised from 10 to 12 in 1891.

Raut’s legal battles drew her to the attention of many suffrage activists and she was supported by several to continue her education. In 1889, she sailed to England to study medicine at the Royal Free Hospital and then the London School of Medicine for Women. She became a Doctor of Medicine in 1894, eight years after Dr Kadambini Ganguly and Dr Anandibai Joshi. Joshi died of tuberculosis shortly after graduating, so Raut was the second practising female doctor after Ganguly.

Although Raut could have stayed and worked in the UK, she chose to return to India where women had little, if any, access to healthcare. She was not welcomed with open arms, being branded a witch by many, and attacked by upper-caste Hindu conservatives.

In 1895, she became the Chief Medical Officer at the Women’s Hospital in Surat, but when the hospital opened there were no patients as people thought that hospitals were only for those who were dying. She faced an uphill struggle to convince her community that medicine was safe and effective, but worked at the hospital for two decades.

In 1918, she took on a role at the Zenana (Woman’s) State Hospital in Rajkot, where she also established the Red Cross Society. She retired to Bombay in 1929 and died in 1955, aged 90.

Further Reading

ALD22 Books: The World’s First Computer Programmer, Beverley Adams

The World's First Computer Programmer: The Extraordinary Life of Ada Lovelace

The World’s First Computer Programmer: The Extraordinary Life of Ada Lovelace, Beverley Adams

The name Ada Lovelace perhaps is not a name that you would automatically link to computer science but she was in fact the first person to create a computer algorithm. Working with the renowned scientist Charles Babbage, Lovelace translated a set of notes on Babbage’s new mechanical computer, The Analytical Engine and discovered that in fact it could be programmed to do more than mere mathematical calculations.

Lovelace may have been a mathematical genius but as the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron she was also a figure of great scrutiny. Abandoned by her father at just four weeks old, Ada endured a strict childhood in the care of her mother who was adamant that her daughter would not inherit the so-called Byron madness. She ensured Ada was denied all things that were considered exciting and was pushed more towards the logical subjects such as science and mathematics.

Did this strict approach work? Or, did Ada Lovelace inherit more than her genius from her father? Ada was many things, a daughter, wife and mother but above all that she was an inspirational woman, one who defied Victorian ideals by entering the field of mathematical studies and by achieving greatness that is still recognised today.

The World’s First Computer Programmer: The Extraordinary Life of Ada Lovelace will be published by Pen and Sword (@penswordbooks) on 30 March 2023, and you can pre-order it on Amazon.

About the Author

Writer and historian Beverley Adams holds a Masters Degree in English and has written several non-fiction titles for Pen and Sword Books, including The Rebel Suffragette: The Life of Edith Rigby. Her work focuses on bringing the lives of inspirational women back to life and her upcoming books include Ada Lovelace: The World’s First Computer Programmer and Margaret Douglas: The Forgotten Tudor Royal. She is passionate about local history and has contributed numerous articles for the local press. She was born in Preston and still lives in Lancashire.

ALD22 Podcasts: Looking Glass: Climate Solutions, Gemma Milne

Looking Glass: Climate Solutions, Gemma Milne

Looking Glass is a podcast from the Institute of Physics which looks at some of the most pressing challenges we face as a society and explores the ways in which physics can help address them. Now in its third series, it is focused on the crucial role physics must play if we are to navigate the climate crisis. Science journalist, podcaster and author Gemma Milne speaks with physicists and other scientists to discuss what hope science has to offer as we face the prospect of a rapidly warming planet.

Recent episodes covered: 

  • How can physics help us to make our air cleaner?
  • Can the physics of how fire spreads help us stop wildfires? And can we use fire to our advantage?
  • How can physics help protect our soil, enable farmers to continue farming and allow communities to survive?
  • How can physics help keep water where we want it, and in a form we can access?
  • How is climate activism changing, and what role should physics and organisations such as the IOP play?

You can:

Listen on Spotify
Follow on Twitter: @PhysicsNews @gemmamilne
Visit their website:

ALD22: Professor Hailan Hu, Neuroscientist

Hailan Hu

Professor Hailan Hu

Hailan Hu, 胡海岚, is a neuroscientist who studies the neurological mechanisms behind emotional and social experiences and how they change the brain’s neural circuitry. Her work is opening up new approaches to treating mental illness.

Born in China in 1973, Hu received her BSc in biochemistry and molecular biology from Peking University in Beijing in 1996. She completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in 2002. She worked across the US until returning to China in 2008 to set up her own lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai.

In 2011, her team showed that the social rank of mice is encoded in neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex, with neurological differences between higher and lower ranked mice. Changing the strength of the connections between neurons resulted in the mice’s social status changing.

In 2016, Hu and her team discovered that a set of neural circuits called the lateral habenula become hyperactive in depressed rats. Ketamine, a fast-acting antidepressant, alleviated the rats’ symptoms by reducing that neuronal hyperactivity.

Increasing our understanding of the neurobiology of mental health disorders opens up new avenues for therapeutics. In an interview, Hu said, “we discovered how the anaesthetic ketamine blocks electrical bursts from a region of the brain and relieves the symptoms of severe depression. We’re talking to scientists and clinicians worldwide about translating the research into antidepressants.”

Hu’s lab has formal collaborations with a number of research groups, including at the University of California, Los Angeles, Columbia University in New York City and the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Hu won the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science award in 2015 and 2022, as well as many other prizes and awards.

Further Reading