That sums it up

Posted by on April 12, 2015 in Blog, Living today, News | 0 comments



I know of plenty of examples of women authors adopting a male pseudonym, but not a female mathematician following suit until I came across Sophie Germain.

Each year the London Mathematical Society celebrates Women in Mathematics Day, which includes talks, workshops, panel discussions. These are intended for talented young women mathematicians, as part of the ongoing aim to encourage more women to take up the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). School age girls will get to meet undergraduates and post graduates studying maths, and be given stimulating challenges to extend their mathematical concepts.

I wondered if my studies for O level in mathematics would have benefited from such encouragement, but then I started reading about Mlle Germain and things took on a completely different complexion. She was born in Paris in 1776, and it is said that her interest in mathematics was an indirect result of the French Revolution. Sophie was kept indoors due to unrest and rioting in the city and it is there that she explored the contents of her father’s library, chancing across the history of Archimedes. She became fascinated by his study of mathematics, and chose this subject for herself, much to the chagrin of her parents, who thought this would be harmful for a young woman.

They did their utmost to dissuade her, but she persisted, and finally they relented. Sophie busied herself studying differential calculus. Then in 1794, during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, the Ecole Polytechnique was founded to train mathematicians and scientists. Being female, Sophie was barred from entering the Ecole although she was desperate to study there.

One of the most influential mathematicians of the time, Joseph Louis Lagrange, taught at the Ecole. Necessity once again proving the mother of invention, Mlle Germain managed to get hold of the lecture notes for his courses, and at the end of the academic term she submitted a paper under the pseudonym of M. Antoine Le Blanc, a former student of the Ecole.

The quality of her paper so impressed Lagrange that he determined to meet its author, and when Le Blanc’s true identity was revealed, Lagrange gave her support and encouragement, helping Sophie further develop her mathematical abilities. Sophie’s studies later extended into the field of elasticity and acoustics; her theory of vibrations of a curved surface earned her a prize from the French Academy of Sciences and a medal from the Institute of France.

The child whose parents took away her reading light at night to prevent her studying the subject she loved ended up an equal among the men in her field. Whether or not the latest Women in Mathematics Days help to nurture another such prodigy, it is good to know that the young women attending the lectures will not have to carry out their studies under the bedclothes, fearful of being found out.



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