Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Introduction

In these times when women are on the verge of attaining real equality with their male counterparts in most aspects of their lives, it can be easy to take for granted the freedoms and opportunities with which this fact presents them. It is therefore important to remember that in order for a previously unthinkable action or notion to become accepted by society, there must first be a person or group of people who are willing to set the precedents and blaze the trails which others can then attempt to follow. In the world of mathematics few have done more to further the cause of women through their actions and achievements than Sofia Kovalevskaya.

Born on the 15th of January, 1850, Sofia was to live at a time when generally speaking the world of academia was firmly closed to women throughout Europe. Somehow she was to overcome the many obstacles which were placed in the way of her progress to emerge as the woman who, according to Ann Hibler Koblitz, deserves the title of the greatest known woman scientist before the twentieth century.1 As is the case with most people of note throughout history, the influence of others contributed greatly to her decisions regarding which paths to follow at various points throughout her life. Certainly of note during her early years was the influence of family members and those hired by her father specifically for the purpose of educating the children of the house, while throughout her most productive years mathematically speaking, it is the influence of Gösta Mittag-Leffler and the great Karl Theodore Weierstrass which should not be underestimated.

Unfortunately, there were times when Sofia's single-mindedness in trying to attain her goal of a university education may have ended up being more of a hindrance than a help. The most obvious example of such an occasion being her decision to enter into a nihilistic marriage with evolutionary scientist Vladimir Kovalevsky. This was a relationship that provided Sofia with the opportunity to get the education which she so craved, yet her demanding personality combined with Vladimir's weakness of mind meant that it was also to be the source of much unhappiness for both of its participants.

Not only did Sofia have to overcome the prejudices which others felt towards women throughout her mathematical career, but she also had to deal with the general suspicion which many felt towards Russians in general in Western Europe during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It is certainly true that Sofia's socialist sympathies did nothing to help matters though. Her own somewhat lazy nature was another factor which often got in the way of her mathematical work, as was the fact that she was a talented author who frequently found herself distracted by the writing of plays, novels or articles on various subjects.

Sofia's research can be split into two distinct periods which are separated by over six years during which she gave very little thought to the world of mathematics. The first of these periods of activity saw her working very closely with Weierstrass in an attempt to obtain her doctoral degree. She was in fact to write three papers which he deemed worthy of such a reward, the most important of which saw her come up with what Charles Hermite stated was the, first significant result in the general theory of partial differential equations.2 The other two papers saw her investigating the shape of Saturn's rings, and reducing specific types of integrals into forms which were less complicated. The second of these periods saw her working more independently, and is dominated by the research for which she was awarded the prestigious Prix Bordin in 1888 on the theory of the rotation of a rigid body around a fixed point. She also carried out work on the equations of Lamé, and on a proof which in turn assisted with the proof of Bruns' Theorem, yet all told published only ten mathematical papers in total during the course of her admittedly short lifetime. The significance of the two works for which she is most remembered is therefore made clear by the fact that despite not having been a particularly prolific mathematician,

On her merit alone, and not as a woman, Sophia Kovalevsky will be found to have a secure niche in mathematical history.3


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Leigh Ellison May 2002