Monday, June 18, 2012

Sophie Germain dressed as a man to study math

One of the fine sources for biographies and other topics in the history of mathematics is MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, hosted by the University of St Andrews in Scotland.  Poet Brian McCabe cites this archive for historical information he used as background for his poems starring mathematicians -- found in his collection, Zero (Polygon, 2009).  Here is McCabe's poem for the outstanding French mathematician, Sophie Germain (1776-1831). 

      A Mere Girl       by Brian McCabe

     You were a child of the revolution
     and a revolution yourself:  your passion
     sealed in your father's library.  Archimedes,
     too intent on reading a future in the sand
     to heed the question of a soldier, was speared
     -- at a slightly acute angle -- through the heart.
     Even your parents could not deter you 
     by confiscating light, heat and clothes:
     with smuggled candles, wrapped in blankets,
     you warmed your mind with calculus,
     cut your hair and dressed as a man,
     replaced a drop-out from the Academy.
     'The heretofore indifferent work of M. LeBlanc,'
     the professor wrote, 'has undergone a transformation.'
     Your talent was too conspicuous.  The game was up:
     you were unmasked as a mere girl.

     The pitch for your biopic came back
     from the producer: 'no love-interest'.
     There was just the dismissive Monsieur Poisson,
     -- your rival in the field of Elastic Plates --
     who stretched and distorted your truths
     till they snapped -- yet the trembling curves
     of the Eiffel Tower held fast.  On one of them,
     where your name should be, is Poisson.
     You are a street in the 14th arrondissment,
     a crater on Venus, and a mind that is still
     gently quivering through the twin primes.  

In our 21st century, the problem Germain faced -- needing to be like a man to do mathematics -- is still with us  (see, for example, my posting for 11 June 2012 concerning whether one must "think like a man" to be successful in publishing mathematics).  Despite her gender, Sophie Germain has been well-regarded and somewhat well-known (for a woman, that is).  In her work with primes, with so-called Germain primes, she showed that Fermat's last theorem has no solutions for exponents divisible by such primes.  

Earlier postings have featured these mathematicians:
     Grace Murray Hopper,  
     Emmy Noether.

A valuable online resource that celebrates women in the sciences as well as mathematics  -- with news, opportunities, advice, and personal stories is Under the Microscope.  Visit, and contribute!

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