NYU Professor Becomes First Woman To Win National Medal Of Science ForMathematics

December 08, 1998

Cathleen Synge Morawetz Is First Woman To Receive Medal For Work In Mathematics

Her Research On Partial Differential Equations Helped Engineers Build Better Airplane Wings

On Tuesday, December 8th, President Clinton named New York University professor emerita Cathleen Synge Morawetz the recipient of the National Medal of Science for mathematics. Morawetz -- a former director of NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences -- is the first woman to receive the medal for mathematics. The medal recognizes her pioneering advances in partial differential equations and wave propagation resulting in applications to aerodynamics, acoustics and optics.

Morawetz is the sixth NYU faculty member to receive the National Medal of Science.

Morawetz' work has been particularly influential on engineers' efforts to design airplane wings that minimize the impact of shock waves. In the late 1950s, she demonstrated that shock waves are inevitable if a plane moves fast enough, no matter how the wings are designed. As a result of this work, engineers now focus on minimizing -- rather than eliminating -- shock waves.

Morawetz also contributed fundamentally to the mathematical theory of scattering. This subject describes how waves interact with obstacles. It provides the framework for analyzing many techniques for remote sensing, including ultrasound and radar.

In addition to her technical accomplishments, Morawetz has also provided scientific leadership. In particular, she served as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1995 to 1997.

National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell said, "I am honored to congratulate the nine recipients of the 1998 National Medal of Science. This U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize is our nation's singular way of commending these ground-breaking researchers for their efforts on behalf of science."

NYU President L. Jay Oliva said, "We congratulate Cathleen Morawetz on receiving a National Medal of Science. She is an outstanding mathematician, and she has been a remarkable pioneer in a field that was once seen as discouraging women from participating. Our strength is our faculty, and she has been an outstanding researcher, teacher and leader."

Morawetz said, "This is an occasion of great moment for me. I am filled with gratitude to all those, and there were a great many, who helped me over many years and I am proud to be the first woman mathematician to receive the medal. I am hopeful that this will help move more women forward in mathematics - from grade school to graduate school and throughout their careers."

The National Medal of Science is bestowed periodically by the President in special recognition of outstanding contributions to the sciences. Morawetz and 8 other scientists will receive the medal for 1998.

Morawetz is the sixth member of NYU's faculty to receive the award. Other winners were mathematics professor Kurt O. Friedrichs, Peter Lax and Louis Nirenberg, and NYU Medical School professors Severo Ochoa and Michael Heidelberger.

NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences is a leading center for research and graduate education in mathematics and computer science. Over the past fifty years, it has contributed to American science by promoting an integrated view of the mathematical and computational sciences as a single unified field. Its research activity ranges from the theoretical to the applied. It covers a broad frontier that includes pure mathematics and computer science, as well as applications of mathematics and computation to the biological, physical, and economic sciences.

The Courant Institute has played a central role in the development of analysis, differential equations, applied mathematics, and computer science. Its faculty research have been recognized by many national and international awards. Likewise, its former Ph.D. students and postdoctoral associates now provide scientific leadership at universities, government laboratories, and private industry throughout the world.

New York University, which is located in New York's historic Greenwich Village, was established in 1831. It is one of the largest private universities in the United States, with some 17,000 undergraduates and some 18,500 graduate and professional students. Through its 13 schools and colleges, it conducts research and provides education in the arts and science, law, medicine, dentistry, education, nursing, business, public administration and service, social work, continuing studies, and the dramatic, cinematic and performing arts.

Biographical Information

Cathleen Synge Morawetz was born in Toronto, Canada of Irish parents in 1923. She received her early education in Ireland but was mainly educated in Toronto public schools and the University of Toronto, where her father, John L. Synge, was a well-known professor of applied mathematics and where she received her BA in 1945. She interrupted her college training for a year during the war to work in a Canadian government laboratory where she got her first taste of scientific discovery. She received her MS at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946, financed largely by the Canadian University Women's Association.

In 1946 she married Herbert Morawetz, a refugee from Czechoslovakia. He became a well known professor of polymer-chemistry at Brooklyn Polytechnic University. Today, they have four children and six grandchildren.

Morawetz joined Richard Courant's group at NYU in the spring of 1946 as a research assistant, mainly editing Courant and Kurt O. Friedrichs' book Supersonic Flow and Shock Waves. She received her Ph.D. in 1951 with a thesis on the stability of implosions. From 1950 to 1951, she was a postdoctoral fellow with C.C. Lin at M.I.T. She returned to NYU in 1951 and started working on transonic flow and related mathematics. In 1958, she was appointed to the faculty of NYU. From 1984-1988 she served as director of the Courant Institute. She retired from N.Y.U. in 1993.

Morawetz published three basic papers on the formation of shocks in smooth transonic flow between 1956 and 1958, and later general work on Tricomi-like equations. Her work in scattering theory began in 1961. The focus was on using an identity she discovered for solutions of the wave equation but it led to a variety of estimates, generalizations and applications to optics and acoustics, the nonlinear Klein Gordon equation and other equations of mathematical physics.

Morawetz served as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1995 to 1997. In additition, she also served on the boards of Princeton University, NCR, the Sloan Foundation and JSTOR. She currently chairs the board of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

New York University

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