Logician and mathematician Juliette Kennedy had the insight of a lifetime on a ferry between Sweden and Finland
In April, mathematician, logician and philosopher Juliette Kennedy, a university lecturer at the University of Helsinki, was awarded an esteemed Guggenheim Fellowship. A scholar born in New Jersey in 1955, she has spent much of her career in New York. Suddenly falling in love brought her to Finland in 1999.

At the age of 66, Kennedy now has a thriving career, and she intends to carry on doing research for a long time. For her, the idea of retiring at 68, common in Finland, is completely alien. She describes her late mother who, still at the age of 85, had to register as a job-seeker at the local employment office in order to receive unemployment insurance. This was after losing her job at a bookstore due to its closure.

Even today, women are rare in the field of mathematics, though the situation is also improving quickly. As a result of her gender, Juliette Kennedy experienced sexual harassment and ensuing depression in the early stage of her career, which is partly why her career progress was interrupted. Among other incidents, she was stalked by one of her professors for three years while she was in graduate school. Other professors reacted to the female student in their midst less than professionally, asking her on dates or suggesting to her, for example, that women’s brains are too small to be able to do mathematics. The environment took a toll. By the age of 13, she had already read the Russian classics, but she did not defend her doctoral thesis until she was 40. Interestingly, this was the median age of female Ph.D.’s in the United States in 1996, the year she graduated.

It is difficult to pigeonhole Kennedy. In fact, she has several interests as a researcher: mathematics, logic, philosophy, the history of logic and art.

Currently she is working on an article on the history of computability, in addition to a new paper in set theory. Her research topics in addition to set theory include logic generally, the history of logic, mathematical metaphor and mathematical drawings. Her calendar includes bookings for plenary conference presentations all around the world, as well as teaching at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics in Kumpula. Right now, she is inspired by the work of the Ukrainian artist Evgeniy Pavlov.

When Kennedy in 1999 met Jouko Väänänen, a Finnish professor of mathematics, she found a life partner and a colleague. For six months, they attempted a long-distance relationship, but travel between New York and Helsinki proved untenable. It was more practical to settle in Finland. However, the couple also lived in Stockholm, Princeton, Cambridge, Barcelona and other places for periods of 6 months to a year.

Kennedy was familiar with Finland through the Arabia china of her childhood and Marimekko. In the 1970s, Finnish design was much appreciated in America, and still is. The dinner services at Kennedy’s home, for example, were Ruska and Valencia by Arabia.

The tragic destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 took place soon after Kennedy had emigrated to Finland. It was hard to be in a foreign country while having the chance to process a deeply affecting disaster only over the phone with friends and family. The brother of her friend died from the falling fuel while walking down the stairs of one of the buildings. He kept motioning for women to go in front of him.

An insight aboard a ferry

Juliette Kennedy remembers precisely when the most significant insight of her career so far came about. In 2009, she was returning on a ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki with her husband Jouko Väänänen. In the cabin, her spouse was already asleep while she was lying awake while the waves rocked the boat. Digesting a recently concluded seminar, she came up with a way to present certain models of set theory in a more simple way. She immediately shared her insight with her drowsy spouse, who was not enthused about being woken up in the small hours.

Every now and then, mathematicians come up with ideas that, after further consideration, turn out to be incorrect. That’s why Kennedy could not know at the time how significant her idea was. In mathematics, ideas must be verified, and that was where the real effort awaited. The next morning, both were convinced of the potential importance of the insight. Initially, only a handful of mathematicians worked on the topic, but soon the work was taken up by a number of research groups around the world.

Ten years to the awards gala

In spring 2022, Juliette Kennedy was awarded a distinguished Guggenheim Fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which can be applied for and proposed for scholars and artists of any field from the United States and Latin America. Previous fellows include Richard Taylor in mathematics and Rudolf Carnap in philosophy.

According to Kennedy, this unexpected recognition was a tremendous push forward for her. At the same time, she regrets being unable to accept the fellowship at the gala ceremony held in New York. Since she had agreed to participate in a selection panel convening at the same time in Europe, on the day of the gala she sat with three other people going over application documents in a dark and dusty conference room while others were celebrating in New York. The next opportunity to attend the gala will be in 10 years’ time, at which point she will have the opportunity to join it as a member of the audience.

Set theory at the foot of the Saana fell

The Arctic Set Theory Workshop was launched at Juliette Kennedy’s initiative. Held every other year in Finnish Lapland at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki, the workshop brings together the world’s leading scholars of set theory and their students. The week-long workshop has evolved into one of the most significant meetings in the field, which everyone wishes to attend.

When Hugh Woodin from Harvard was forced to skip last year’s workshop due to concerns about coronavirus, he still wanted to pay the rent for his accommodation. In return, Secretary Pirjo Hakala from the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station posted a pair of hand-knitted woollen socks to Harvard.