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In memoriam: mathematician Cathleen Synge Morawetz

Cathleen Synge Morawetz (right) with mathematician Peter Lax at a 2008 math conference at U of T, which was dedicated to her 85th birthday (photo courtesy of the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences located at U of T)

U of T alumna Cathleen Synge Morawetz, a professor emeritus of mathematics at New York University, died last week. She was 94.

Morawetz's work on partial differential equations helped describe the motion of fluids and waves in water, sound, light and vibrating solids. A New York Times obituary on Aug. 11 described her research as “solving real-world engineering problems.”

For example, her study of the flow of air around airplanes flying close to the speed of sound has helped aerospace engineers design wings to minimize shocks. She studied the scattering of waves off objects and came up with a method to prove what is now known as the Morawetz inequality – it looks at the maximum amount of wave energy near an object at a given time.

Morawetz was a trailblazer, setting a path for female math scholars in the 1950s.

Born in Toronto in 1923, the daughter of a physicist/mathematician, she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Toronto in 1945. 

Despite the lack of opportunity at the time, she received a master’s degree in mathematics at MIT and then her PhD from New York University in 1951.

In 1998, she became the first female mathematician to receive a National Medal of Science in the United States, and in 2012, she became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Read more about her at the New York Times