Sophie Germain / so-FEE, zhehr-MAN /
Mathematics Ranking 46th of 46
French stamp from 2016.
Sophie Germain was one of the earliest female mathematicians and a founder of modern applied mathematics. She also corresponded with the eminent mathematician Carl Gauss (ranked #4) on mathematical issues. She discovered the young Évariste Galois (ranked #31) and what he was trying to do and encouraged him and helped connect him with other mathematicians who might be interested in his work.(1) Finally, she was and continues to be an inspiration for women to pursue mathematics as a career.
As a child, Germain had been fascinated by the mathematical works she found in her father’s library. She was especially intrigued by Plutarch’s (Greek biographer and philosopher, c. 46–c. 120) description of the death of Archimedes, for whom mathematics was more vital than life itself. When she expressed an interest in studying the subject formally, her parents responded in horror. Forbidden to explore mathematics, Germain was forced to smuggle books into her room and read them by candlelight. Her family, discovering these clandestine activities, removed her candles and, for good measure, removed her clothes as well in an attempt to discourage these nocturnal wanderings in a cold and dark room. It is a testament to Germain’s love of mathematics, and perhaps to her physical endurance, that not even these extreme measures could keep her down.(2)
As she mastered ever more of the mathematics of her day, Germain was ready to move on to advanced topics. The very idea that she would attend class at college seemed outrageous, so she was forced to eavesdrop outside the classroom door, picking up what information she could and borrowing the lecture notes of sympathetic male colleagues within. Few people have ever had a rockier route into the world of higher mathematics.
Nonetheless, Germain made it. In 1816, her work was impressive enough that she won a prize from the French Academy for her penetrating analysis of the nature of vibrations in elastic plates. In the process, she had disguised her identity with the pseudonym Antoine Le Blanc so as not to give away her unpardonable sin of being a woman. With this pen name, she also began writing to the world’s foremost mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss. Note that the Bronte sisters, Charlotte (wrote Jane Eyre), Emily (wrote Wuthering Heights), and Anne, adopted the pseudonyms of Curer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, respectively, for their fictional works published in the 1840s.
From the outset, Gauss was impressed with the talent of his French correspondent. Le Blanc had obviously read Gauss’s Arithmetic Researches with care and offered certain generalizations and extensions of results contained therein. This is most impressive considering that the Arithmetic Researches formulated systematic and widely influential concepts and methods of number theory dealing with relationships and properties of integers (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2, etc.). This work laid the foundations of number theory. Then, in 1807, the majestic Gauss learned the true identity of Sophie Germain. Obviously concerned by the impact of this news, she wrote Gauss what sounded a good deal like a confession.
It may come as a surprise that Gauss answered with charity and understanding. He admitted to an “astonishment” at seeing his M. Le Blanc “metamorphosed” into Sophie Germain, then went on to reveal a deeper insight into the inequities of the mathematical establishment:
The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare: this is not surprising, since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them. But when a woman, because of her sex, our customs, and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarizing herself with their knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.(3)
Germain had a productive career even with her identity revealed. In 1831, at the urging of Gauss himself, she was to have been awarded an honorary doctorate from Göttingen University (Gauss was the director). This would have been a brilliant honor for a woman in early nineteenth century Germany.(4) Unfortunately, her death from breast cancer prevented this honor from being bestowed.
(1) David Bressoud, The Queen of the Sciences: A History of Mathematics - Lecture Transcripts, Lecture 22 (Chantilly, 2008), p. 162.
(2) William Dunham, Journey Through Genius - The Great Theorems of Mathematics (New York, 1990), p. 241.
(3) Ibid., p. 242.
(4) Ibid., p. 242.