Message from Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the Occasion of the International Day of Mathematics
14 March 2020
“Nisaba, woman sparkling with joy/righteous woman, scribe, lady who knows everything (...) a 1-rod reed and a measuring rope of lapis lazuli/a yardstick, and a writing board which gives wisdom/Nisaba generously bestowed them on you”.
Thus, at the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the scribes of Nippur spoke of the gift of mathematics bestowed by the goddess Nisaba, making her the female figurehead of a burgeoning science.
On this first International Day of Mathematics, we are celebrating a universal history, which began in Palaeolithic Africa more than 20,000 years ago and has continued relentlessly ever since.
All the great mathematicians, both men and women, have contributed to this history. Now, at a time when too few girls and women are drawn to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, this Day is an opportunity to celebrate them, from Hypatia in Greek Antiquity to the mathematicians who won our L’ORÉALUNESCO Prize “For Women in Science”, such as Ingrid Daubechies and Claire Voisin in 2019, and Maryam Mirzakhani, who passed away in 2017. Winner of the Prize in 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani is still the only woman mathematician to have received the Fields Medal, out of 60 recipients. By making these women role models for girls all over the world, UNESCO is fighting against stereotypes and is committed to ensuring that mathematics receives all the energy it needs to fulfil its role for our societies.
The images of the yardstick and measuring rope remind us of the real effectiveness of this science, which was developed between the most tangible problems and the greatest abstraction.
Mathematics, with its many technical applications, now underpins all areas of our lives. Together with algorithms, mathematics is at the heart of the development of artificial intelligence and technological disruption. That is why it is of key importance for countries’ development.
With its educational programmes and through its regional centres dedicated to mathematics in Hanoi and Accra, its Chairs in Benin, Nigeria and Palestine, and the programmes in Asia, Africa and America of the International Centre for Pure and Applied Mathematics (ICPAM) in Nice, UNESCO is committed, on a daily basis, to enabling access to mathematics education and research in developing countries.
Some countries have recently declared mathematics to be “in crisis”, being rejected by students who consider the subject to be boring. This Day is all about remembering what mathematics is for, and in particular how it can be the basis of innovation for sustainable development. We must recognize that mathematics, even in its most theoretical aspects, really concerns all of us.
As an ideal and indispensable tool for understanding the world and building our future, mathematics is a gift of never-ending generosity: we still have so much to explore.