Adventures in Feministory: Sophie Germain, Mathématicienne
Long before Lawrence Summers’s unfortunate remarks at Harvard University a few years ago, there have always been powerful forces which assigned all manner of illogic to women’s “inability” to excel at math and science. Their brains were too feeble to handle such difficult concepts, they claimed. And besides! Math and science were “right brain” and therefore “masculine” sciences so it wasn’t in a woman’s nature to be interested. Although there were some textbooks written to give women the knowledge they would need to carry on a polite conversation if the subject of science should arise, these books framed mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry in ways that the authors felt women could understand—through the lens of romantic love.
Compound these shoddy arguments and weak study materials with the practice of barring women from attending universities and there was a pretty good chance you would not have seen an overwhelming number of women studying calculus 200 years ago.
However, there was certainly one women determined to pursue her love for mathematics, and she is the subject of our Adventure in Feministory today.
Sophie Germain was born in France in 1776. Her young life was marked by political revolution—first the American colonies fought to throw off the British (with the invaluable aid of the French, but we never learn that part in US history do we?). Then, the French themselves took up the bloody mantle of revolution and the country was besieged by the leveling of aristocratic power, followed by the Reign of Terror as this New France attempted to forge itself from the fires.
Sophie’s parents kept her mainly sequestered indoors during this turbulent time, and she spent a great deal of her young adolescent years reading whatever was available to her. Famously she became fascinated by the account of Archimedes’s death at the hands of a Roman soldier. According to legend, Archimedes was so engrossed in a geometric problem he was puzzling over that he failed to respond to a Roman soldier when questioned. For his insubordination he was killed. As Sophie understood the story, for Archimedes geometry had been so fascinating that protecting life and limb took a backseat to his studies. She decided that she had to know for herself the power of geometry.
Her parents were initially quite opposed to her new academic passion. They felt she would make herself unmarriageable and unattractive. To deter her studies they took away her books and candles and even her nightgowns so she would not be able to study at night. Sophie hid scraps of candles and wrapped herself in blanket upon blanket to continue her work. Eventually, she won this battle of wills and her parents yielded to her desire to study mathematics. Her father would financially sponsor her studies for the rest of her life.
Enrolling at the Ecole Polytechnique at the age of 19, Sophie assumed the name of a former male student at the Academy, Monsieur le Blanc. Sending friends to collect or turn in assignments and retrieve graded work for M. le Blanc, Sophie began her formal education, though no one at the academy knew her true identity.
Eventually, “Le Blanc’s” advisor, Joseph Legrange-- who would make his own mark as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century-- demanded to meet with the student who turned in such well done work every week, yet never seemed to attend his classes. Sophie decided to reveal her secret to Legrange, and in perhaps one of the most encouraging turns in her careers, he was delighted with her surprising secret and would remain a mentor and encouraging friend throughout her life.
Though Germain would go on to study physics as well as mathematics, developing a particular interest in the principles of elasticity, perhaps what the mathematics community remembers her best for is her contribution to untangling Fermat’s Last Theorem. In brief, Pierre de Fermat was a brilliant mathematician in the 17th century who posited that, while x^2 + y^2 = z^2 (Pythagoras' Theorem) had been proved undoubtedly true, the same equation, raised to any exponential power higher than two would never be possible: x^n + y^n ≠ z^n.
Fermat claimed in marginal notes found after his death to have proved this conjecture, but a completed proof was never discovered and the quest to solve this genius’s final puzzle had become a popular, and entirely frustrating, challenge.
Over several years, Germain managed to make strides in proving Fermat’s Theorem, and, after revealing her identity as a woman a second time in order to save another of her correspondents and one of the most famous mathematicians the world will ever know, Carl Friedrich Gauss, from Napoleon’s invading army-- Well, then she began to get some over-due credit for her work.
To this day, as part of the proof to Fermat’s Last Therom (which was eventually proved by Andrew Wiles, 358 years after the original conjecture) there are a set of primes numbers termed “Sophie Germain Primes” which are defined as any prime number, p, such that 2p+1 results in another prime number. This proved that Fermat’s conjecture worked for all primes less than 100. It represented one of the only truly significant marks of progress toward proving the theorem for almost two centuries.
So, while Sophie Germain conducted the majority of her studies under a man’s name -- even entering and winning some prizes in physics contests which she would never be confident enough to claim in person -- she is known to us today as a bold thinker and a woman gifted with a truly mathematical mind. In a day and age when women do not have to hide behind male pseudonyms and send couriers to bring their homework from class, could Sophie be the new inspiration for a generation of women who take up the mantle of math with pride and confidence? Watch out Lawrence Summers, it’s about (prime) time.
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