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Women in Science on the Air
Mon January 15, 2007
SOPHIE GERMAIN Audio Biography
(1776-1831) – IT'S NOT UNUSUAL FOR PARENTS AND TEENAGERS TO ARGUE OVER SCHOOLWORK, BUT THIS 18TH CENTURY MATHEMATICIAN HAD TO FIGHT FOR HER RIGHT TO STUDY. HER WORK IN NUMBER THEORY HELPS KEEP THE EIFFEL TOWER STANDING TODAY.
In an era of Revolution, it was natural for 13-year-old Sophie Germain to rebel when her parents refused to give her books. Germain was the daughter of a wealthy French merchant. Confined to her home for protection from the dangerous streets of the French Revolution, the teenager spent hours in her father's library. Fascinated by mathematics, she decided to make it her life's work. But in 18th Century France math was not a subject for middle class girls.
When Sophie began teaching herself, her parents took away her books. So she studied secretly at night. When they found out they denied her heat, light and clothing. They relented after finding their daughter naked on the floor of her bedroom, wrapped in a quilt, huddled over a candle stub and a notebook. Sophie went on to teach herself high level math, without a tutor. The prestigious L'Ecole Polytechnic did not admit women, so the enterprising young Sophie obtained class notes, and submitted a paper under the pseudonym Monsieur LeBlanc. Impressed, the professor - mathematician J.L. LaGrange - sought out the elusive Monsieur LeBlanc...and discovered, to his amazement, that he was a she.
LaGrange agreed to mentor Sophie, but Monsieur LaBlanc did not disappear. Sophie later used the pseudonym to correspond with German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss about number theory. In 1816 Sophie Germain won the Academy of Science's Grand Prize for her work in elasticity. Her contributions in applied mathematics led to engineering advances that helped build the Eiffel Tower. The names of 72 scientists whose work contributed to the tower are inscribed on the inside; Sophie's name is conspicuously absent. Sophie Germain died at the age of 55. Her death certificate lists her not as a mathematician, but merely as a 'rentier'... or 'property holder'.
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HER-STORY: THEN & NOW was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation.