FOR CENTURIES, people believed women were unsuited for the study of mathematics because their heads were smaller than men's or their nerve systems were too delicate.
Well, a couple of young women from Anne Arundel County demand to differ. Jennifer Hardin and Tracy Thoma each scored 800 -- the highest possible -- on the mathematics part of the Scholastic Assessment Test last year and now are roommates at University of Maryland Baltimore County, taking courses that would daunt a freshman of either gender.
Jennifer, 18, is majoring in mathematics and plans to add a second major in computer science, a field with a striking paucity of women in graduate and teaching ranks. Her course schedule -- linear algebra, physics, philosophy and Spanish -- is topped off by water aerobics.
Tracy, 17, plans to major in biochemistry. In an English class earlier this week, she heard a young woman say that she wasn't good at math because of her sex.
"I wanted to flog her," said Tracy. "That kind of talk just makes me want to show 'em all what women can do. I want to prove it to everyone."
Friends since childhood, the two UMBC freshmen graduated from separate public high schools, Jennifer from Severna Park and Tracy from Arundel. With their SAT aces at the ready, both could have had the pick of the litter of expensive private universities. They chose UMBC, in part because they won generous merit scholarships, in part because the university has a growing reputation in mathematics, science and technology.
"A lot of people have put UMBC down," said Tracy, "but I gave up on the college search when I found out I had the scholarship here. I wanted to stay in Maryland and stay close to home."
But each young woman has noticed the drop-off in female classmates as she has advanced. Only three of the 13 students in Tracy's advanced biology class last year at Arundel High were girls, for example.
The shortage of women in upper-level math and science is a national -- and international -- phenomenon, said Mary Wagner-Krankel, a professor of mathematics education and computer science at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
For years, as girls' scores on the SAT math test have lagged consistently behind boys' scores (although the gap is narrowing), few women have opted for careers in mathematics, engineering and the natural sciences. In 1993, according to the National Science Board, women accounted for only 1.8 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded in the United States in science and engineering. (South Korea had the highest percentage, 2.1.)
"One of the things we have to do is get a critical mass of women like Tracy and Jennifer," said UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, who is a mathematician. "If they don't see examples of women mathematicians and scientists, they don't think of themselves as possibly becoming one."
Dr. Wagner-Krankel agreed. "It's also helpful to have parents, particularly mothers, as role models," she said. "My father was a math teacher, my mom an English teacher. It turned out that I enjoyed the math better." Tracy Thoma and Jennifer Hardin have parents and siblings who have been role models.
Julian C. Stanley, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University who studies gifted children, said experts still are arguing over why girls lag behind boys in mathematics. "Everybody has a hypothesis," he said. "One Canadian believes it's a hormonal difference, the feminists have one set of environmental explanations, and others have biological explanations."
Computer science, Dr. Stanley said, "has become a male bastion, and not for any exclusionary reason I know of. That gap, though, has been narrowing."
One explanation that no one puts forward in the 1990s is that God gave women beauty as a substitute for brains. Alfred Hall-Quest, a Milwaukee educator, was quoted to that effect in this newspaper 63 years ago.
"God has been especially merciful to the moronic girl," the good doctor told the women of the Service Star Legion in his hometown. "He has showered upon her beauty and physical attractions far surpassing those of her intellectual sister. Nature has slapped her on one cheek and kissed her on the other."
The Sun ran the story under this headline: "Most Dumb Girls Have Beauty As Substitute For Brains, He Says."
Name change rejected as too uncomplimentary
The University of Maryland Board of Regents continues to discuss changing the name of the University of Maryland System to the Maryland University System, so that the whole will sound different from any of its parts.
But a proposal to change UMBC's name to the Maryland Institute of Science and Technology, a copycat of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been dumped.
The idea was being discussed at a meeting of UMBC department heads a few days ago, when one foreign language professor noted that the acronym formed by the proposed new name, MIST, means "dung," "manure" or "rubbish" in German.
End of discussion.