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A Lady Mathematician in This Strange Universe: Memoirs

Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat
Publisher: 
World Scientific
Publication Date: 
2018
Number of Pages: 
351
Format: 
Hardcover
Price: 
88.00
ISBN: 
9789813231627
Category: 
General
[Reviewed by
William J. Satzer
, on
05/4/2018
]

Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat, born in Lille, France in 1923, is a mathematician who worked largely in mathematical physics. She was the first woman elected to a full membership in the French Academy of Sciences, and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well. This book is a recollection of her long life and impressive career. She wrote the book in French with the title Une Mathematicienne dans cet étrange universe, and translated it into English herself. (Hence the term “lady mathematician” in the English title is her choice.) The translation is quirky but understandable throughout — much easier to understand, in my mind, than the French educational system.

This is a combination of autobiography, memoir and reminiscence that appears to have been written in part at the request of her children. It is accordingly a kind of family history. Much of her mathematical work is described in general terms, but there is also a great deal about her family and her travels. She is a specialist in partial differential equations and differential geometry with an emphasis on general relativity, mathematical physics and cosmology. She seems to be largely unknown now in the U.S., but she has had a considerable influence in her field. She has written seven books and more than 300 papers. She says that — unlike other mathematicians — she likes to write, at least in part because it helps her clarify and organize her thinking.

The “strange universe” of her title is significant. Choquet-Bruhat is a very independent and unusual thinker. She tells of an experience as a very young child asking her parents about the strangeness she felt from having only direct consciousness of herself, and then rejecting their opinion that she was a solipsist. Later, barely ten years old, she asked her optical physicist father to explain the nature of light to her. Throughout her career she has been engaged in work on the edge of the unknown in cosmology and general relativity. She regards the universe as a very strange business that we are very far from understanding.

Choquet-Bruhat writes that as a mathematical physicist she operated primarily a tactician and not a strategist — so she did critical analysis of the theories proposed by the strategists, pursued the consequences of their theories and envisioned possible experimental verification. She did this without personal judgment of the validity of the theory. So, for example, she worked extensively with Irving Segal on his controversial theory of cosmology although she had serious doubts about its correctness.

Rarely in her life did she seem limited because she was a woman. On a few occasions her work was challenged as owing too much to a male mentor or coauthor, but the strength and breadth of her work made the silliness of this apparent. She seems to have had excellent relationships with nearly all the mathematicians and physicists she met. She also offers blunt comments about the few people who treated her poorly.

Choquet-Bruhat met and worked with an amazing number of mathematicians and physicists. Early in her career she spent a term at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton working as assistant to Jean Leray. She notes that she had several occasions to speak to Einstein and got an open invitation to visit him any time. She had provided rigorous proofs of properties of the gravitational field that he had conjectured but not proved. Earlier she had also proved existence and uniqueness for solutions of the Einstein equations in a vacuum. He was particularly gracious with her and, she says, always “kind and unsophisticated”. During that period at Princeton she also met Marston Morse, George Mackey, and Irving Segal.

During her career Choquet-Bruhat held faculty positions at Marseilles, the University of Reims, and finally at Université Pierre­et­Marie­Curie in Paris, from which she retired in 1992. She traveled a great deal throughout her working life and collaborated widely. In many respects she seems to have been the collaborator that we would all have wanted.

If the book has shortcomings they arise from the perhaps overly extensive reporting of her travels. Of course, the book is a recollection meant in part for her children and grandchildren, so she wanted it to be complete. Overall her book is a delightful self-portrait of a remarkable woman. 


Bill Satzer (bsatzer@gmail.com) was a senior intellectual property scientist at 3M Company. His training is in dynamical systems and particularly celestial mechanics; his current interests are broadly in applied mathematics and the teaching of mathematics.

  • Prologue
  • Ancestors
  • Good Daddy, Aunt Mary, Mame and Tonton
  • My Parents
  • Childhood and Adolescence
  • Youth 1940–1944
  • Disaster 1944–1946
  • Life in Montaigne
  • A New Life, America
  • Marseille 1953–1955
  • Transitions 1957–1964
  • First Years in Antony 1965–1968
  • After the Reform 1968–1979
  • Academician 1979
  • Life Continues 1979–1990
  • Retirement 1990–2003
  • A I'I.H.E.S 2003–?
  • Far Away Travels
  • Our House in Dammartin
  • Epilogue

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