Drawing inspiration from Archimedes

Today we honor Sophie Germain: a brilliant mathematician, physicist, philosopher and trailblazer. She is most well known for her work in elasticity theory, geometry and number theory. DiscovHER takes a look at this determined woman, who was never deterred by societal opposition and prejudice to pursue her passion.

Born to a wealthy family in 1776, Sophie Germain was exposed to politics, mathematics and philosophy, thanks to her father’s position as a representative of the bourgeoisie to the Etats-Generaux and his in-home library. At 13, after reading about Archimedes, one of the greatest mathematicians in History, she became deeply interest in the subject. However, her parents (and society in general!) considered it inappropriate for women to be educated, and they refused to give her warm clothes or light a fire in her room, to discourage her from studying at night. In Lynn Osen’s book Women in Mathematics, she states that Sophie was found “asleep at her desk in the morning, the ink frozen in the ink horn and her slate covered with calculations”. It seems Sophie couldn’t be deterred.

When Sophie was 18, the prestigious mathematician Gaspard Monge opened the Ecole Polytechnique. As a woman, Sophie was not allowed to attend. However, she obtained lecture notes and began corresponding with faculty member Joseph Louis Lagrange, sending him her work, using the pseudonym “Mr. Antoine Auguste Le Blanc”. Lagrange eventually found out Sophie’s identity, and was so impressed with her intelligence that he became her mentor.

Over the years, she continued to use her pseudonym to correspond with two great mathematicians of the time, Adrien-Marie Legendre and Carl Friedrich Gauss, about number theory.

In 1816, Sophie became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences, for her research on elastic surfaces, although she was unable to attend its sessions, as the Academy excluded women at that time.

Her tenacity and determination in a time when women were wholly discouraged from pursuing such an education is truly amazing. 

What other women scientist trailblazers inspire you? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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