Catching up with...Kim Plofker

Publication Date

Kim Plofker, associate professor of mathematics, is always eager to talk about ancient Sanskrit, the value of interdisciplinary learning, butterflies and the local bus schedule.

After earning a BA in mathematics from Haverford College, she was working at MIT as a computer programmer in astronomy data gathering when she decided to “learn a language with a funny alphabet.” So, she enrolled at the Harvard extension school to take Sanskrit, the classical language of India.

Kim Plofker, associate professor of mathematics, is the self-proclaimed “Crazy Caterpillar Lady” who raises butterflies.

Kim Plofker, associate professor of mathematics, is the self-proclaimed “Crazy Caterpillar Lady” who raises butterflies.

Because she wanted to maintain her strong interest in mathematics and science, she asked her professor if she could study the history of those fields through Sanskrit. She eventually found her way to Brown University to study with the late David Pingree, a prominent historian of ancient mathematics, and earned her Ph.D.

Today, she studies the history of mathematical sciences, especially in medieval India and the Islamic world, largely through Sanskrit, Arabic and Latin.

“I totally recommend this interdisciplinary shtick,” she said. “If you’re interested in more than one field, do them both.”

During the summer, her alter ego is the self-proclaimed “Crazy Caterpillar Lady” who raises butterflies. She is happy to share her hobby with others at Union by providing caterpillars and chrysalides (pupae). “If you're on campus in the summers and you like butterflies, then shoot me an email to get on the distribution list,” she said.

Plofker, who joined the College in 2007, proudly admits that though she has a driver’s license she has never owned a car. She lives a mile from campus and walks, takes the bus or rides a bike. “I’ve waited decades for that to be cool and it has finally arrived,” she said.

FIRST APP YOU LOOK AT IN THE MORNING: Weather, unless the New York Times Spelling Bee in a browser counts as an "app".

ONE BOOK YOU HAVE READ MULTIPLE TIMES: I have read every book I own multiple times; it is what books are for! I suppose the one with the best backstory is the copy of “Moby Dick” I found on top of a cupboard when I was moving into a new apartment about 35 years ago. Since then, for some reason, I have to re-read “Moby Dick” every time I move house. I like Melville, so it's kind of a silver lining to the hassle of moving.

BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED: For all the first-years arriving on campus now, that best advice (from an older high-school friend when I was preparing for college) was "Get used to the idea that you won't be the smartest person in your classes anymore." Union is full of students who were the smartest person in all their high-school classes, but you don't need to keep that up forever.

FAVORITE SPOT ON CAMPUS: Anywhere with caterpillars (except the spongy moth ones). The gallery of Memorial Chapel during the orchestra and choir end-of-year concerts is also a nice place to be.

GO-TO BREAKFAST: When I worked a couple years in the Netherlands, I got permanently addicted to the standard Dutch breakfast of bread, milk and cheese. (The Dutch eat that a lot, actually; as a colleague once said to me, "To tell the difference between a Dutch breakfast and a Dutch lunch, you have to look at your watch.")

FAVORITE PODCAST: I don't really listen to podcasts much, but do Bernadette Banner's historical sewing/costuming videos count? Micarah Tewers too.

ONE SKILL YOU WISH YOU HAD: Moving dismount/mount on a bicycle with a horizontal top tube. I learned how on a drop-tube bike when I lived in the Netherlands (of course), but never quite figured out how to swing on or off my regular road bike while in motion. I keep meaning to practice it but I'm afraid I'll just crash.

THREE DINNER PARTY GUESTS (living or deceased): Any three of my favorite overseas colleagues/collaborators that I haven't visited since the pandemic hit; I miss them!

FIRST CONCERT: At my age I can't guarantee that the first concert I remember attending was actually the first one I ever went to! But I think it was Joan Baez in Philadelphia sometime in the winter of 1982. I remember her singing "Diamonds and Rust" and "Lady Di [who had just recently become 'Princess Di'] and I".

LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT YOU: I can calculate what time it is from the shadow of a stick if I know my local latitude and the date (and which way is astronomical north). Of course, by the time I've finished figuring out the calculations it's usually several hours later, so I don't bother.