A not-so-mysterious woman

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

A research director with the National Center for Scientific Research in France thinks it’s time to recognize the contribution of a Los Alamos woman in solving a mathematical problem more than 50 years ago.

In a series of articles in the last few years and in a physics book he co-authored, Thierry Dauxois has identified the unsung woman whose maiden name was Mary Tsingou and he has taken up something of a cause on her behalf.

Locally, Mary Tsingou has been known by her married name, Mary Tsingou Menzel for 50 years. She still lives in Los Alamos with her husband John, not far from the scene of her accomplishment.

“I thought it was okay,” Menzel said in an interview Monday, when approached by Dauxois. “I kept saying it was perfectly all right.”

Tsingou’s name has been somewhat ambiguously associated with solving a central paradox that Dauxois argues led to non-linear physics and chaos theory in one direction and to computer simulations in another. They were two very important developments in physics at the end of the Twentieth Century.

The paradox is known as the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam problem and deals with the question of how a vibrating string propagates heat.

The mystery that intrigued Dauxois had to do with the attribution on the title page of a Los Alamos report from 1955, which states that the report was written by Enrico Fermi, John Pasta and Stanislaw Ulam.

Fermi won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 and set up the first nuclear chain reaction in Chicago in 1942. Pasta was a computer pioneer and was among the first to work the MANIAC computer at Los Alamos Science Laboratory. And Stanislaw M. Ulam, like Fermi, worked on the Manhattan Project and along with Nicholas Metropolis invented the Monte Carlo method for using statistical sampling to solve difficult mathematical problems.

Somewhat mysteriously, a second credit line is given in the 1955 report, noting “Work done by Fermi, Pasta, Ulam and Tsingou.”

“That remark, that Tsingou took part in the numerical study but is not an author of the report has puzzled many of the scientists who have read the paper,” wrote Dauxois in the January 2008 edition of “Physics Today.” “Her programming of a 1950’s computer was not a trivial task. Why has her contribution received only a two-line acknowledgement?”

Menzel said, “I was not a mysterious lady. We were all young people. The Korean War was on, so they hired women mathematicians.”

She said she was surprised by all the fuss on her behalf. The credit format, she said, was “just a procedure.”

When she duplicated the solution with J.L. Tuck in 1972, she said, she was given equal credit. Ulam always acknowledged her contribution. Fermi was always friendly and she remembers him “sitting there punching his own tape.” Unlike some of the scientists, Fermi could do his own programming.

The other surprise was that this was just one of several problems the team worked out at the time. She could not have guessed that this one solution should take on such significance in the history of science.

“They treated me as an equal,” she said. “When we had a discussion about what to try, I was included.”

When the article in “Physics Today” appeared, she said, a number of colleagues called.

“I felt a little embarrassed,” she said.

Oddly enough, while Menzel was one of the first programmers of either sex to work on the MANIAC computer, her sister, a year and a half older, had a similar role on the ENIAC, a related machine at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C.

With no hard feelings toward her colleagues, she did recall another convention related to gender in general.

“They told us we would be doing the same work as males but we would get less pay and we accepted this,” she said. “My daughters, who are both physicians, can’t believe they would tell us this.”