by Pedro Lira
In mathematics, Luna Lomonaco seeks to make sense of randomness
Anyone who saw Luna Lomonaco at day care, at age four, writing love letters on behalf of her classmates – she was the only one in the room who already knew how to read and write –, would bet that this child with alert eyes and quick thinking would pursue a literary career. It wasn’t quite like that. Interested in philosophical questions about life, she decided to study mathematics to look for answers in numbers, according to her “the most perfect form of communication”.
But the relationship with discipline was not always harmonious. Born on the outskirts of Milan in 1985, and raised in a small town near Verona, in high school Lomonaco opted for the classic – she studied languages, literature, philosophy. So he decided to study mathematics, believing that the discipline could answer fundamental questions of humanity, such as “what is the truth?”. “I arrived at graduation with philosophical ideas. At 19 I was very clueless”, he jokes.
In his first year at the University of Padua, he felt a shock. She, who had always been the first in the class, couldn’t keep up with the exact classes. “If you are part of a social minority and you lack knowledge, people treat you like an ass. Because I’m a woman in math and I didn’t learn certain math concepts in high school, they convinced me I was bad.” Even with the adversities and the temptation to go back to studying philosophy, pride and passion spoke louder and she didn’t give up.
Lomonaco got an Erasmus scholarship to study in Spain. Funded by the European Commission, the scholarship is part of a program that allows higher education students to move across Europe. “I was great at dead languages like Latin, but not so good at others. Choosing the University of Barcelona was easy because Spanish is the closest language to Italian”, he confesses.
His relationship with numbers was consolidated. “The teachers answered my questions and I was no longer treated as an inferior”, he recalls. He returned to Padua only to graduate and returned to Spain; he got into his master’s, also in Barcelona. Ten days after defending the dissertation, he left for Denmark, for a doctorate at the University of Roskilde.
The cold climate and distant human relationships made life difficult for the researcher, who is passionate about social interactions. But it was there that she struck a partnership with mathematician Carsten Lunde Petersen. The article they wrote together earned the Italian the award from the Brazilian Society of Mathematics (SBM), which recognizes the best original research work in the area. And not only that: it was in Denmark that she met a Dutch researcher in theoretical physics, whom she married. They go together, now in the tropics.
The doctorate was not enough for Lomonaco. Still having fundamental doubts about pure mathematics, she managed to get a scholarship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The experience in Asia was liberating. “For the first time, I felt that I could work at my own pace, a sensation unknown in Europe”, he says. But not only that. It was there that the Italian saw the world with different eyes. “I realized that I had a limited, Eurocentric view. Going to work in China has opened my horizons a lot.”
From then on, he didn’t want to know more about the European continent. Still in China, a professor recommended him to look for a place at the University of São Paulo. “Passing the USP contest was one of the happiest moments of my career,” she recalls.
Specialist in dynamical systems, Lomonaco studies the Mandelbrot set, a type of geometric shape determined by mathematical formulas that manages to make sense of apparently random events. Today he is an authority on complex dynamics, a field of mathematics devoted to the investigation of chaotic phenomena. “In Brazil, my career has progressed in a way I could never have imagined.”
Currently a professor at the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics, in Rio de Janeiro –one of the two women on the board with 48 researchers–, Luna Lomonaco is an important name in Brazilian mathematics. In 2018, she received the For Women in Science award, promoted by L’Oréal, UNESCO and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. The program, which aims to promote gender balance in Brazilian research, supports leading names in different areas of science.
She was also the first woman to win the Brazilian Mathematics Society Award and the Umalca Recognition, an international distinction that honors outstanding researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the ceremony, Lomonaco dedicated the honor to all female scientists.
Pedro Lira is a journalist and social media at Instituto Serrapilheira.
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