Women Rock Science

The Inimitable Life of Sophie Germain

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This is Sophie Germain, 18th Century physicist, mathematician and philosopher. She is the first person for 200 years to make progress on Fermat’s last theorem and her pioneering theories on elasticity helped build the Eiffel tower. Her journey into science was an unusual one, as a teenager, she had to fight her parents for the right to read books and as an adult she had to pretend to be a man to take university courses. Despite her amazing work she was not included in the list of 72 French architects and scientists whose names are inscribed in the Eiffel tower.

Sophie was born in 1776 to a wealthy Parisian family. Her parents did not approve of girls receiving an education and banned Sophie from studying. This was a huge point of conflict as Sophie was obsessed with mathematics, particularly the theories of the ancient Greeks. Her parents even went so far as take away her heat, clothing and lights so that she couldn’t sneakily study at night as she had been caught doing many times. Her parents eventually surrendered when they found her in the middle of the night, reading, freezing naked with a burnt out candle stub. From this moment on they let her continue to study and her father even went on to support her financially.

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Names Inscribed in the Eiffel Tower

At 18 a new technical University opened in the city. Sophie wished to go but was barred entry as she was a woman. Just like before, Sophie wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She used the identity of a former male student Monsieur Le-Blanc to write into the university and request lecture notes for remote learning. As the course progressed, she even began submitting coursework under her new male name. She was excellent although it was this excellence that would get her busted. Le-Blanc’s work was so intelligent, so brilliant that the course supervisor demanded to meet with him. It was then he discovered that Le-Blanc was actually Sophie Germain.

The professors at the university took the identity swap revelations surprisingly well. Though she was not granted a degree she forged strong mentorships with some of the finest mathematicians in France. She pioneered work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces which made the construction of the Eiffel Tower possible. Several years later, she went on to be the first person to progress in providing the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem - a problem that had been troubling mathematicians for 200 years.

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Fermat’s last theorem img Source: Simon Singh

Despite her achievements, upon her death, her death certificate listed her simply as a single woman with no profession – not a mathematician. Further when the Eiffel tower was built, her name was not included in the list of scientists despite her theories being key in its construction. Sophie didn’t receive a formal school education and her work was often haphazard and lacked formal structure. However it is this very nature that allowed her creativity to flourish and gave her a unique perspective on mathematical problems.

Sources: Women in Science, Agness Scott, Wichita, Houston, Today in Sci

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