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Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace day - an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science ((thanks Sankar for reminding me, although I signed the pledge some time ago already, I would have certainly forgotten it completely in this "moved to a new team" frenzy ;-)).

I'm going to introduce to you one of the most brilliant mathematicians of her era, a heroine that lived in difficult times where women were not admitted to the universities and scientific societies. Despite all the obstacles, she significantly contributed to number theory and her findings helped to solve one of the greatest mathematical mysteries of all times - Fermat's last theorem. Ladies and gentleman, Sophie Germain.

Sophie was born in 1776 into the middle class French family. She discovered magical world of numbers and mathematics as a teenager, to a great dismay of her parents who in the effort to prevent their daughter from pursuing such an unfeminine career used to confiscate her candles and remove heating from her room so that she couldn't study. But in the end, it was her father who financially supported her research and her efforts to break into the male-only community of mathematicians.

In 1794, Ecole Polytechnique was opened in Paris, but unfortunately, its gates were closed to women. In order to pursue studies anyway, Sophie assumed an identity of drop-out student, monsieur Le Blanc and was submitting answer sheets under this pseudonym. It was only after course supervisor, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, astonished by her brilliant answers, insisted on meeting the talented student when her true identity was revealed.

She quickly moved from homework assignments to more difficult problems and being interested in number theory, she had to come across Fermat's theorem sooner or later. She proved the theorem for particular type of primes, making an important step towards the final proof on which later generations of mathematicians could build. In later age, she also explored elasticity theory and received grand prize from Paris Academy of Sciences for her research on the subject. Sophie died of breast cancer in 1831. A particular type of primes (if n is prime, 2n+1 is also prime) is called "Sophie Germain prime" in her honour.

My choice of extraordinary female scientist to blog about was not random - I wanted to introduce a pioneer woman in some field to illustrate how much prejudice and institutionalized misogyny  women had to (and sadly, sometimes still have to) overcome to succeed just as well as men do. Using the words of Carl Friedrich Gauss ("the prince of mathematician") in one of his letters to Germain: "A taste for the abstract sciences in general and above all the mysteries of numbers is excessively rare: one is not astonished at it: the enchanting charms of this sublime science reveal only to those who have the courage to go deeply into it. But when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudices, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarize herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius."

Many thanks to these brave heroines who paved the way to us, modern women in technology and science.

References: Wikipedia, Simon Singh's book (Fermat's Last Theorem - highly recommended read)


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2010 06:27 am (UTC)
Nice Post
Nice post. Well-written.
Mar. 25th, 2010 06:28 am (UTC)
Nice Post
Nice Post. Well Written.

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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