Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat: a mathematician in a strange universe

Today marks International Asteroid Day, a global event that aims to create awareness about asteroids, and what can be done to protect the Earth from the harmful effects of asteroid-related events. To mark this occasion, DiscovHER brings you the story of Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat, a mathematical pioneer whose research into and resolution of some of the mathematical problems put forward in Einstein’s theory of relativity paved the way for the numerous advances that have been made in astrophysics today.

Born in 1923 in Lille, France to an academic family - both her parents were professors- Yvonne’s academic potential became well-known very early on in her life. At the age of 17, she won second place in Physics in a national competition that aimed to reward the best high school students countrywide.

After earning her thesis in 1946, then working for a few years in France, she moved to the United States in 1951 to begin work as a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. It was during this time that she met Albert Einstein, who, in spite of his renowned theories, had not succeeded in transforming them into something more concrete and applicable. She presented her thesis to him, which he was impressed by, and he invited her to visit him often in order to discuss their work, which, in her own words, she did rarely, and when she did, it was mainly to offer criticism.

Her research, which was at the crossroads of mathematics and physics, led to many breakthroughs in abstract physics theories, particularly those related to Einstein’s theory of relativity. She was the first scientist to provide mathematical proof of the existence of solutions to Einstein’s equations. Her pioneering work on the mathematics of general relativity led to advances in numerical relativity, such as the calculation of gravitational forces emitted during the collapse and fusion of black holes. The solutions she developed were then applied to other areas of astrophysics, such as the research and monitoring of asteroids.

Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat’s lifelong achievements in academia did not go unnoticed, especially not by her home country France: in 1979, she became the first woman to join the French Academy of Science; in 1989, she was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor, with her progressing from Officer class to Grand Cross class in 2016; and finally, in 2006, she was awarded the National Order of Merit, yet again progressing from Officer class to Grand Cross class in 2015.

A scientist of such brilliance is unlikely to be forgotten, especially as her work becomes of greater importance to human beings who are now looking further out into the universe.

What did you think of Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat’s research? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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