There are numerous examples of diversity within the realm of mathematics that have been evident dating back to the stone ages. One example of this diversity would be a woman by the name of Sophie Germain. Sophie Germain was born in Paris, France and was well known for her contributions in the mathematical fields of acoustics, elasticity, and the theory of numbers. Much of her knowledge within this field was spurred from reading the books in her father’s library. According to Simon Singh, the book that began this fascination and expertise was “History of Mathematics” by Jean-Etienne. (Singh). From this point forward, she was captivated with the different ideas within the realm of mathematics and began to dedicate her time and efforts into studying the concepts of the number theory, calculus, as well as the works of Euler and Newton.
Today, this interest and thirst for knowledge would most likely be celebrated in nearly any household. Unfortunately for Germain, this couldn’t be any less of the case for her situation. Due to the fact that the spark of her interest in mathematics took place on the tail end of the French Revolution, there was a substantial amount of turmoil and prosecution within France. One example of this prosecution would be exemplified in the behavior of all men in response to Sophie showing interest and expertise in mathematics. Simon Singh states, “This sudden interest in such an unfeminine subject worried her parents and they tried desperately to deter her” (Singh). He also alluded to the fact that in efforts to deter her, they threatened to take away, and eventually did remove all of her candles and clothes to ensure her lack of warmth. Clearly if her parents were willing to go to this extent in order to deter her from learning more about these subjects strictly reserved for men, there was obviously no way she would be taken seriously by the common public. Thankfully, as time had passed, her father, who was financially stable, began to support her in her efforts to becoming a mathematician. He even funded much of her efforts in research and study.
In all, she was still very much mistreated by the general public in this time. This unfair treatment led Sophie on a very unique path throughout her professional career. A path that was far more difficult for her solely because she was a woman. During this time period, there is no way, shape, or form in which a woman would be able to get her ideas heard in mathematics. This injustice led Sophie’s career to a crossroad in her mid 20’s when she was developing her theory in regards to Fermat’s Last Theorem. She had done an extensive amount of work on the theorem, to the point where she believed that she had information that needed to be shared with the rest of the mathematic community. In order to do so, she needed to discuss her breakthroughs with a man by the name of Carl Friedrich Gauss. This discussion was pivotal in the development of her theorem because Gauss was highly regarded within the mathematic community. According to Simon Singh, “Gauss is widely acknowledged as being the most brilliant mathematician who has ever lived.”(Singh). With that knowledge, Sophie knew that the only way in which she would get his attention would be with the use of a fake name to make it appear as if she was a man. So, from then on, Sophie Germain officially started reporting all of her answer sheets under the name “Monsieur Le Blanc”.
Sophie used this identity initially to be sure that her contributions and thoughts were heard and recognized by Gauss, as well as other elites. Simon Singh states that Sophie’s respect for Gauss was so immense that she would address her inferiority in her letters. For example, in one letter she says, ‘Unfortunately, the depth of my intellect does not equal the voracity of my appetite, and I feel a kind of temerity in troubling a man of genius when I have no other claim to his attention than an admiration necessarily shared by all his readers.’ (Singh). As these letters progressed, Gauss began to acknowledge and become fond of Sophie’s work. Unfortunately for her, all of the praise was being directed toward the alias of Monsieur Le Blanc.
This fascination and respect for Sophie’s work continued to be credited to Le Blanc until 1807. This year in France there was much turmoil and war. During this time of struggle, the true identity of Sophie Germain was brought to light. The Encyclopedia of Britannica states that, “Gauss only learned of her true identity when Germain, fearing for Gauss’s safety as a result of the French occupation of Hannover in 1807, asked a family friend in the French army to ascertain his whereabouts and ensure that he would not be ill-treated.” (Barrow-Green). Then, According to the article “Math’s Hidden Women”, Gauss was particularly taken back by the fact that all of the work that he had been reviewing was brought to him by a women. That being said, rather than becoming disappointed or angry, he was delighted and continued to work with her and began to admire her genius. (Singh). From this point forward, Sophie was well regarded within the mathematic community and was supported by male and female figures.
Looking back on all of her accomplishments and contributions to the field of mathematics, she could easily be regarded as one of the most accomplished female mathematicians ever. Her most recognizable accomplishment would have to be her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem. Her work on this theorem also earned her a medal from the institute of France. Simon Singh states that, “ she was the first woman, who was not a wife of a member, to attend lectures at the Academy of Sciences”(Singh). In addition to that, she also wrote “Momoir on the vibrations of elastic Plates” which was a paper on the subject of elasticity that was very highly regarded. Above all, Sophie Germain represented something that went far beyond the impact of mathematics. She represented a strong woman who refused to accept the assigned role given to her in her day in age. Rather, she followed her passions and did whatever it took for her ideas and breakthroughs to be heard.
- Singh, S. (1997, October 28). Math’s Hidden Woman. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/sophie-germain/
- Barrow-Green, J. (2019, June 23). Sophie Germain. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sophie-Germain