1000 Years of Revolution: The Stories of Women in Mathematics (Part I)

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The first notable woman in the annals of math history is Hypatia of Alexandria. Her story and tragic death is one which has had a fiery energy to symbolize the grace, wisdom, and resilience of all female mathematicians that have followed her. Hypatia’s place in math history is part mythical and part martyr. She was not only a brilliant mathematician, carving out mathematical ideas that current students see towards the end of high school, but she was also a gifted physicist, astronomer, and philosopher.

 

There are well over a dozen books written on her extraordinary life. The one below is the only one I have, but it is a marvellous read of her entire life, making you feel like you are in the turbulence of intellectual and religious conflict of Alexandria at that time.

The 20th-century mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who co-wrote with Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest books of all time, Principia Mathematica, had a keen insight as to what made women thinkers so unique in history–that being deprived of a standard access to education made them better thinkers.

 

 

” That is the reason why uneducated clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in middle life so much the most cultured part of the community. They have been saved from this horrible burden of inert ideas. Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas.”

– Aims of Education, 1929

 

 

The next female mathematician that we would like to share with you is Sophie Germain. And much like with Hypatia of Alexandria, her story is filled with intrigue and drama. Hollywood could not have written a more gripping script! Like with so many stories, the historical developments around the time shape and direct the narrative of our heroes–and their wonderful journeys.

 

Sophie Germain is one of the nine mathematicians in our Missions, a gamified part of our platform, which introduces students to just a few of the captivating stories of famous mathematicians.

It is 1789. Normally a 13-year-old girl might be playing in the streets of Paris, but the French Revolution, which would close out the 18th century, is afoot. And, as such, the streets are not a safe place, especially for children. Sophie curiously retreats to the offerings of her father’s library, which was considered out of bounds for her. She stumbles across a book which talks about the death of Archimedes, and how his death was related to being engrossed in a math problem and not heeding the warning of an enemy soldier. Sophie wondered to herself how amazing mathematics must be to lose awareness of your surroundings and safety.

 

While her awe and wonder for mathematics were high, the support from her parents to pursue this kind of learning was not. As such, the parents withdrew her light, fire, and blankets at night to discourage her studies. Nevertheless, Sophie, even with these Spartan-like conditions, taught herself Latin, Greek, and of course, mathematics. Eventually her parents relented and let Sophie pursue her passions. 

 

This is where some of you might know the story!

 

Sophie obtained lecture notes from a local university from the French mathematician, LaGrange. She submitted an original paper to him, but did so under the name Monsieur Le Blanc, so not to reveal her gender. Her work eventually caught the eye of arguably the most brilliant mathematician, Gauss. And, in an ironic twist, the story of Archimedes, and his death, led Sophie to rightfully believe that Gauss’s life was in danger when the French were occupying his hometown. She contacted the leading French general to get assurance that Gauss would not be harmed. Eventually Gauss found out who was the instigator of this deed, and their true identity.

 

He then wrote what is one of the greatest letters to Sophie, punctuating it with adulation that is transcending. Below is the excerpt that should be heard by every student and teacher of mathematics:

 

“…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 research, 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.”

 

The stories of Hypatia and Sophie are just two of the many women who rose to mathematical and cultural prominence with their “courage, talents, and superior genius.” And all their stories need to be heard and told–over and over and over again.

 

Next time: 1000 Years of Revolution: The Stories of Women in Mathematics(Part II)