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Thursday, April 08, 2021

Meet Sophie Germain, the amateur mathematician who worked on number theory’s toughest problem | Science Heroes - Massive Science

Born in Paris in 1776, Sophie Germain’s teenage years were spent witnessing the French revolution, according to Rebecca Lea Morris, Mathematics - Freelance. 

Photo: Brittney G. Borowiec
Her father, a silk-merchant, had a library and Germain tried to distract herself from the volatile political and social situation by reading some of his books. One of those books was the story of Archimedes, who was so captivated by the mathematics he was working on that he did not notice the invading Roman soldier who swiftly killed him. Looking for an intellectual escape, how could Germain not be curious about the subject that distracted a man to death?

Unfortunately for Germain, mathematics was not regarded as a suitable subject for women in her time so she studied in secret, at night. When her parents discovered her night time study habit, they took away her fire, light, and even her clothes in an attempt to get her to stop studying and stay in bed. When even this failed, they relented. That did not mean she could study mathematics freely, however. Classes at the École centrale des travaux publics, later known as the École Polytechnique, were only available to men, but 18 year old Germain was able to obtain lecture notes for some of the classes. She then assumed the name of a male student, Monsieur LeBlanc, and wrote to one of the professors, Joseph-Louis Lagrange. Lagrange was impressed with Monsieur LeBlanc’s abilities and remained supportive when he found out LeBlanc was actually a woman.

Later, in 1804, Germain used the pseudonym Monsieur LeBlanc to write to another top mathematician: Carl Friedrich Gauss...

Despite Germain’s brilliance, the continual obstacles she faced due to her gender made it impossible for her to become a professional mathematician. She thus remained an amateur throughout her life, never obtaining a position at a university. Her mathematical work, however, was sophisticated and exemplified her boldness and creativity, just like her earlier efforts to overcome barriers to gain a mathematical education. 

Musielak suggested in an email interview that the obstacles Germain faced may have even shaped her approach to Fermat’s Last Theorem: “Maybe because she was an amateur mathematician, determined to arrive at a proof, working alone with all odds against her, Germain had to think differently. In the end, Sophie Germain developed her own algorithms and a unique approach to prove Fermat’s theorem, distinctively different from Euler’s and Fermat’s.”

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Source: Massive Science