History of Math – Sophie Germain

Sophie Germain was an 18th – 19th century mathematician, and she was one of the first female mathematicians.  It was difficult for her but she eventually became a respected mathematician despite the sexism and classism she faced.  Her formative years were spent during the French Revolution were she used mathematics to escape from the fighting outside.  She was raised in an upper middle class family who were not supportive of her pursuit of mathematics.  Ms. Germain taught herself mathematics using the books from her father’s library.  Her parents disapproved of her studies and confiscated her candles and clothes to dissuade her from studying at night.  She hid candles and studied at night in secret.

When she turned 18 she ended up borrowing lecture notes from friends who attended college for mathematics in order to further her mathematical studies.  After she collected more mathematical knowledge from these notes and other sources she started creating her own proofs.  Once she had gained a bit of confidence in her proofs she started writing to J.L Lagrange under the name M. Leblanc in order to conceal her true gender.  Lagrange was very impressed with her work and was shocked when he found out that she was female.  He then started teaching her math once he saw her potential.

Later on in her life she was tutored by Gauss, she again used the name M. Leblanc in order to keep her gender a secret.  Gauss helped guide her research for three years before Gauss discovered her true gender, and when he did he was thrilled and quite impressed that a woman could be so skilled and interested in mathematics.  She also communicated with Legendre about her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem and she made a lot of headway into solving the problem.

Ms. Germain later ended up winning a prize for her paper “Memoir on the Vibrations of Elastic Plates” though she won it anonymously since she knew that they would judge her based on her gender instead of her math.  She did not win the prize until her third try since the judges could tell by her language that she was not well educated, so she kept fine tuning her proof until she eventually won the prize even though her proof still had a few holes in it.  It took many years for these holes to be corrected.

In her life she became a gifted mathematician despite the social stigmas that tried to stop her from getting very far in a scholarly field.

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