img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Thursday, 1 May 2008


This post is for the Nonbelieving Literati; I'm afraid it may be less comprehensible if you haven't read the book. We've been reading 'A Room of One's Own' by Virginia Woolf.

I have been there.

I have been there, and they did not refuse me entrance to the library but bade me enter and write my name in a red book, as Newton once did. They gave me a room of my own with a desk and a bed and filled my mind to bursting six mornings a week.

Once a week I'd make my way to formal dinners, to sit with gowned humanities students getting drunk on nearly-free alcohol and discussing everything from politics to philosophy to pornography. We'd stay out late and optimistically propose meeting in Hall for breakfast the next morning.

They never did meet me, of course. Breakfast closes at 9am, no matter what day of the week it is. Nobody gets up for breakfast before 9am when they've been out drinking the night before. Nobody but me, innocently without a hangover, gazing out the window after the alarm had gone off and getting fired up on morningness like a child who has never seen the world before. I'd walk, run, dance through the garden, across the road, down the Avenue. I'd step with carefree possessiveness through those arches, into the nearly deserted Hall at breakfast on Saturday morning, and eat my fried eggs across from whichever portrait on the wall took my fancy.

There are no women on the walls.

I swapped Emmy Noether stories with another young woman one night. Did you know her father tried to stop her? And have you heard the quote about "Emmy is the centre of co-ordinates . . ."? And of course you know what Hilbert said, gosh but that was a good one.

We cling to Emmy Noether, just a little, we young algebraists and theoretical physicists. There are no women on the walls, but once upon a time in another place there was Emmy Noether . . .

Yet when I see the shallow layers worn away on the steps, worn down by the shoes of students -- those shoes are mine. Though they were all men, or most of them, their shoes are mine and my feet step in their footprints and they belong to me and I to them. Once this place was barred to us but we have found our way inside and the men who once lived here belong to us now, too. Their legacy is ours.

Our legacy will be yours, some day.

EDIT: The next book is my choice, and will be 'Zadig', by Voltaire. You can get it from Amazon or from a library, of course -- or if you don't mind reading it off a screen you can get it here for free.


The Exterminator said...

This is a really wonderful post.

Alejandro said...

Spectacularific... then again, I've come to expect that here.

Alon Levy said...

You've indeed come a long way.

In algebra, there are two people whose contribution is considered so great that their names are turned into common adjectives instead of proper ones: Abel, and Noether. A ring may be noetherian, but a space can only be Hausdorff, and a field extension can only be Galois.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. You and I, and many of our peers, have enjoyed experiences about which Woolf, her (our) predecessors and many of her peers could only dream. You and I, and many of our peers, both male and female, benefit from a long legacy of male achievement and a growing legacy of female accomplishments as well. All of humankind is enriched when members of all its segments contribute to the adventure.

The Ridger, FCD said...

What a wonderful observation.

Unknown said...

Beautiful post.

I had the pleasure of visiting Oxford twice in my life and staying at Balliol the last time. A friend of mine is a career director there and she was able to secure a room for me during a holiday.

There are many place I'd love to see in my life that I have never visited, but still visiting Oxford again would be near the top.

John Evo said...

Ex said: This is a really wonderful post.

It's all that really need be said. I can't help but wonder if this isn't the perfect example of what you had floating around your head when you came up with The Nonbleliving Literati.

L.L. Barkat said...

I felt like I was reading Woolf. Terrific! Like poetry.

Lynet said...

Yeah, her style is contagious :-)