Judith V. Grabiner: A Theory of Everything

When Judith V. Grabiner began teaching at Pitzer in 1985, she asked students and colleagues what they wanted from their new professor of mathematics. Almost everyone gave her the same answer: “We want you to explain what mathematics has to do with everything else.”

As a historian of mathematics and science, Grabiner thought, “If that’s what they want, I should be able to do this job very well.” Recalling that moment 31 years later, she adds: “And I hope I have.”

She has. Marcelo D’Asero ’86 vividly remembers Grabiner’s lecture about the way Thomas Jefferson used language associated with geometric proofs—such as “self-evident”—to endow the Declaration of Independence with axiomatic certainty.

“Professor Grabiner allowed me and other students to see how mathematics is used in everyday life and in areas of human endeavor that you wouldn’t think have anything to do with mathematics,” said D’Asero, who is now a supervising research attorney at the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

For her courses designed for non-mathematics majors, the Flora Sanborn Pitzer Professor of Mathematics doesn’t assume students have a propensity for parabolas—she jokes that the only prerequisite is a hatred of math. In Mathematics, Philosophy and the “Real World,” students uncover the math underlying areas of their own expertise: in music, in art, in ski jumping—an approach that allows undergrads to feel like they really “get” math, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

“My goal is to teach students mathematics,” Grabiner said. “But there are so many different roads to coming to an understanding of mathematics.”

When Grabiner introduces examples of mathematics in different fields and cultures, she is drawing on her own infinity of interests. She can riff on constitutional law, Kant, and Lewis Carroll as easily as she talks about the origins of the epsilon. She’s known as an advocate for the underdog, a fierce believer in blackboards and an ardent proponent of participatory politics who reminds everyone, every election, to vote.

During a recent dinner held in her honor, her peers from across The Claremont Colleges described her as a towering figure in her field, and her Pitzer colleagues called her a paragon of principles who has shaped both the College and her discipline.

“The future of mathematics at Pitzer is bright,” Professor of Mathematics Jim Hoste said to Grabiner. “And, in a large part, we owe that to you.”

Today, in addition to core and upper-division courses for mathematics majors, students at Pitzer can study the mathematics in gambling, in a Rubik’s Cube, in 3D printing. Grabiner says her legacy at the College may be helping people understand how numbers, measurements, symbols and sets relate to the world around them.

“I think that was a very Pitzer thing to do.”

Professor Grabiner’s [P=rime (Num)/be-rs]

  • 31 Years at Pitzer (1985–2016)
  • 4 Lester R. Ford Awards for best article in The American Mathematical Monthly
  • 1 Beckenbach Book Prize—Mathematical Association of America (MAA)
  • 1 MAA Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching
  • 1 Great Courses DVD: Mathematics, Philosophy, and the “Real World”
  • 2012 Inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society