Thursday, March 15, 2012

Women's History Month | Sophie Germain

Though she couldn't make a career out of mathematics due to her gender, Sophie Germain became one of the pioneers of elasticity theory

[In honor of Women's History Month, 13.7 Billion Years remembers 22 female scientists throughout history who may be a bit overlooked today.]

After the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, many Parisians were forced to remain indoors to avoid the chaos of the burgeoning French revolution outside. Such was the case with young Sophie Germain, the daughter of a wealthy bourgeoisie representative to the États-Généraux, the legislative assembly under France's Old Regime.

And of course, she did what any inquisitive 13-year-old would have done in her situation: explore her father's extensive library. (Like many households of the time, the home library was a decidedly male domain.) There, she came across the French mathematician J. E. Montucla's 1758 magnum opus, L'Histoire des Mathématiques, the first serious history of mathematics. In this classic tome, notes Mary Gray in the 1987 book Women of Mathematics: A Bibliographic Sourcebook, Germain was particularly moved by the death of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. According to Plutarch's account, Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier during the Second Punic War after refusing to meet the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus, saying that he had to finish working on a mathematic diagram.

In 1809, the Paris Academy of Sciences sponsored a contest concerning the experiments that German physicist Ernst Chladni conducted using vibrating plates. The object of the contest was, according to the Academy, "to give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence."

But when Italian mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange said that solving such a difficult problem would require the creation of an entirely new branch of mathematics, no one dared to try—except two brave souls: French mathematician and physicist Denis Poisson and Sophie Germain. Poisson later moved from contestant to judge, leaving Germain the sole contestant. With her third submission (the contest had been extended several times), Germain won, becoming the first woman to be awarded a prize from the Academy.

Still, she was not allowed to attend the Academy's sessions, which were open only to members (who were men) and their wives. Seven years later, only after becoming friends with Academy Secretary Joseph Fourier was she finally allowed access. (Sometimes, you have to use all the tools at your disposal.)

Her prize-winning paper, Research on the Theory of Elastic Surfaces, made her one of the pioneers of elasticity theory, a fundamental theory of solid mechanics. But she also excelled in number theory (she was noted for her work dealing with Fermat's Last Theorem), psychology and philosophy. In one of her two philosophical works, the laboriously titled Various Thoughts and General Considerations on the State of Science and Humanities at Different Epochs of Their Culture, Germain argued that there is no difference between the sciences and the humanities. For someone who obviously excelled in both, perhaps that is true. For the vast majority of the rest of us, we'll just have to take her word for it.

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image: Portrait of Sophie Germain (Wikimedia Commons)

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