Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Sophie Germain, a tech heroine

When I first heard about Ada Lovelace Day, I started thinking about who I'd write about. I figured the usual suspects like Grace Hopper were out, but that left the field wide open - there are so many cool women around in different fields.

Yet despite all the possibilities in times and fields closer to my own, I've ended up thinking about a woman who who died 178 years ago. Mathematician and physicist Marie-Sophie Germain has been described as "probably the most profoundly intellectual woman that France has ever produced".  I have long-since forgotten my high school maths and physics, but I was drawn to her stubbornness, her tenacity, her sheer need to keep learning. about.com says:

After discovering geometry, Sophie Germain taught herself mathematics, and also Latin and Greek so that she could read the classical mathematics texts. Her parents opposed her study and tried to stop it, so she studied at night. They took away candles and forbid nighttime fires, even taking her clothes away, all so that she could not read at night. Her response: she smuggled candles, she wrapped herself in her bedclothes. She still found ways to study.
She was eventually recognised by the French Academy of Sciences, though her history is full of poignant reminders of the difficulties she faced.  PBS says:
Although she made no further contributions to proving Fermat's Last Theorem, others were to build on her work. She had offered hope that those equations in which n equals a Germain prime could be tackled, however the remaining values of n remained intractable.

After Fermat, Germain embarked on an eventful career as a physicist, a discipline in which she would again excel only to be confronted by the prejudices of the establishment. Her most important contribution to the subject was "Memoir on the Vibrations of Elastic Plates," a brilliantly insightful paper which was to lay the foundations for the modern theory of elasticity.
From a different perspective:
Although it was Germain who first attempted to solve a difficult problem, when others of more training, ability and contact built upon her work, and elasticity became an important scientific topic, she was closed out. Women were simply not taken seriously. (MacTutor History of Mathematics)


I think this is the saddest of all - Britannica says, "[d]uring the 1820s she worked on generalizations of her research but, isolated from the academic community on account of her gender and thus largely unaware of new developments taking place in the theory of elasticity, she made little real progress."

It's sad, not just on a personal level - imagine having that brain, that drive to collaborate and create, and not being taken seriously because of your gender - but can you imagine how much further the field of mathematics or physics might have advanced if she'd been supported and allowed to participate fully in the scientific community?

I couldn't find any images of Sophie Germain that I could clearly re-use, so instead you could go check out the range of faces tagged womensday on the Flickr Commons site, many of whom are scientists or inventors themselves. If I knew more about them I'd look for candidates for Modern Bluestocking.

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