Monday, September 8, 2014

Sophie Germain

Sophie Germain was a French Mathematician from the 19th century. Sophie isn't a strange name for 19th century french boys, she was a female mathematician. Women in math during the 1800's were very rare, and they were very amazing, to say the least. Today, I want to talk a bit about her life. But to many naritives focus on how hard women had it in the 19th century, not enough focus on her work. So Wednesday will be focused on her work, which deals with prime numbers.

There is two women during this time that I've done research on, and the other is a Russian women named Sophia Kovalevskaya, who became the first first woman professor of mathematics in Europe. I bring her up, because to be a woman and a mathematician you couldn't just have ambition. You also needed to come from an upper middle class family, have plenty of family friends ranging from liberal to radical, and live in a country during a time of intense political and cultural change. Kovalevskaya was mid to late 19th century Russia during the period when nihilistic and anarchist writers were forming the ideas that later inspired the Russian revolution. Germain was born in 1776 and lived during the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars. Tough times make great people, I guess. They still need access to the best ideas and education.

Speaking of access to the great ideas, Germain's initial education in mathematics was by getting texts and notes of lectures from students at the Ecole Polytechnique.  This worked in her favor, as she began to come up with her own ideas and submitted a paper to the math historian, Adrien-Marie Legendre, under a boys name. He was impressed with the work and was surprised to find that the work came from a woman1.

Her real break came from the fact that she was able to keep in contact with the leading mathematicians of the day. Namely, she was able to initiate contact with Carl Friedrich Gauss (something like getting into contact with Stephen Hawking, then getting his help with problems). She used her correspondence with both men to work on her ideas of number theory, then later elasticity.

In her later years, she discovered she had breast cancer. She still worked despite the pain, then died at 55. She was not listed as a mathematician at her death, but merely "property holder". She never married, had know children, but after her death her friend Gauss was able to get an honary degree for her.

Wednesday, I'll focus on her work on prime numbers in number theory.