Jean Taylor

born: Sept 17, 1944 in San Mateo, California

Full professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. Spent three years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Vice President of the American Mathematical Society. Leading researcher in minimal surfaces: soap bubbles, Plateau’s Problem, crystals, geometric measure theory. More than 40 publications. Political and anti-war activist. Accomplished mountaineer. Parent.

Jean Taylor grew up in Sacramento, California in the 1950’s and 60’s. Once, in high school, a smart boy she really liked told her,”It isn’t fair that you get A’s [and I get B+’s]. I need them for my career.” At first she did not recognize the blatant sexism, and it stalled her scientific ambitions. Only momentarily though. Now she claims that “It inoculated me against it.” She’s never looked back. Taylor’s high school academic grades were, in fact, outstanding. But reprimands for hanging out with a “bad crowd — probably the ringleader” and showing “little respect for authority” earned her low marks for citizenship. “QUESTION AUTHORITY — That’s one of my favorite bumper stickers. It’s one of the most important things to bring to mathematics,” she says. “If you come into a situation thinking about things in different ways, that has a chance of being a plus.”

Taylor was a Phi Beta Kappa chemistry major at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She never felt comfortable in the laboratory though; “the day-to-day work was far removed from ideas.” While in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, she audited courses in algebraic topology and differential geometry because she was intrigued by shapes and because her math major boyfriend and hiking club friends were taking them. On a whim she took the final exams and aced them. She was hooked and switched to mathematics after finishing her master’s degree in physical chemistry. These were the Vietnam War years, and Berkely was a hotbed of political activity. Taylor got involved in the protest movement (“Something terrible was happening on my doorstep. People’s heads were being bashed in.”), but the volatile atmosphere became too much for her. She married her boyfriend, and they moved to England, where she finished another master’s degree, this one in mathematics, at the University of Warwick.

In 1970 Taylor was accepted for the doctoral program at Princeton, but before returning to the United States, she attended the International Congress of Mathematics in Nice. There she was introduced to the then fledgling area of geometric measure theory and the unsolved problem that became her doctoral thesis; and she met her mentor and future husband, Fred Almgren. When she first heard the problem, “I went, ‘Wow!’ It’s so easy to state, so straight forward, and yet no one has been able to do anything with it.”

Solder together three semicircular shaped wires so that the open ends of each are common to the other two wires and their planes meet at 120-degree angles. When dipped in a soapy solution, the film that forms across this frame consists of three D’s that all share the same straight side.

If the wires are distorted (twisted, bent, etc.), then the common line is also distorted into some other curve.

Taylor’s question was: just how long and how complicated can this new common curve be?

It took her three years, using the new tools of geometric measure theory, to prove that it could not degenerate into an infinite spiral, a fractal, or anything else that was too weird. During that time she was divorced from her first husband, and in 1973 she remarried, was awarded a Ph.D., and joined the faculty at Rutgers University.

For the next three years Taylor brashly tackled the biggest open question in her field, Plateau’s Problem, to determine the surface of least area constrained by a given boundary, originally posed in the 1800’s in the context of soap bubbles. She settled this hundred-year-old problem in 1976 in a fifty-page paper, which firmly established her as one of the leading researchers in the theory of minimal surfaces and a sought-after speaker at mathematical conferences the world over. Currently, Taylor is using powerful computer methods to study a type of minimal surface, called Wulff shapes, which models properties of crystals. In fact, some of Taylor’s work has appeared first in metallurgical journals.

Taylor also works on familiar problems, like maintaining a household, raising three children, etc. She says that her basement looks pretty much like everybody else’s — tools, dirty laundry, toys — except for the litter of low-tech soap bubble paraphernalia and a rather large contraption, homemade out of plexiglass and ball-bearings, that she uses to help her think about Wulff shapes. “See, I have done lab experiments [after all]!” she brags. Despite her demanding research activities, Taylor still finds time to conduct simple science lessons for children at her neighborhood elementary school and keep her mountaineering skills sharp. When asked which of her accomplishments she is proudest of, she answers without hesitation, “The day I climbed Cathedral Spires and Church Tower.”

Jean Taylor
Cathedral Spiders

Jean Taylor in one of her elements and Cathedral Spires in Yosemite National Park

Condensed by Larry Curnutt from “Bubble, Bubble” by Robert Kanigel, Math Horizons, September, 1994.

Last Updated September 22, 2022