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Sophie Germain

Sophie Germain Photo

Marie Sophie Germain was born on 1st April 1776 to Ambrose-Francois Germain and Marie-Madeline Germain in Paris, France.  There has been confusion regarding what her father did for a living, some believe he was an affluent merchant of silks, while other believe he was a goldsmith. Germain was prevented from attending school when she was 13 due to the breakout of the French revolution, but that did not stop her from pursuing her passion in life; the fundamentals of mathematics. She self-taught herself this challenging subject from the books found in the private library of her father. She spent the later part of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century in breaking some of the most well established mathematical theories of her time. But her real passion was the number theory, elasticity and proving Fermat’s Last Theorem in which she was successful by the end of her career. During her time, women were neither accepted nor encouraged to participate in such challenging fields of education. This, however, did not deter her convictions and she started corresponding with leading mathematicians under a male pseudonym M. LeBlanc to get her way around this dilemma. This is how she acquired an able mentor in the shape of Professor Joseph-Louis Legrange, a brilliant mathematician at Ecole Polytechnique.

What piqued her interest in the number theory was the book ‘Theorie des Nombres’ written by the mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre. This book encouraged Sophie to share some of her own ideas with the author. Sophie’s findings on the subject of number theory and elasticity were later used by Adrien-Marie Legendre as a supplement in the second edition of his original book.

Another book that deeply affected Sophie was Carl Friedrich Gauss’s ‘Disquisitiones Arithmeticae’. Once again Sophie Germain corresponded with the author regarding her own ideas about Fermat’s Last Theorem. However, since Sophie at that time had no substantial proof to support her findings, the author disregarded her opinion and never even responded to her letter.

In 1811 the French Academy of Sciences announced a mathematics competition in which contestants needed to provide a mathematical explanation in relation to experiments conducted by Ernst F.F. Chladini on vibrating plates. Germain submitted her explanation but two years later when the winner was announced, Sophie’s explanation was rejected. The same author, who had published Sophie’s findings of number theory and elasticity in his book, objected to her current theory on the basis of it not being a universal one. However, this rejection further fueled Sophie’s passion in this field and she continued submitting her work in every competition announced by the French Academy of Sciences and repeatedly failing to win. Then, in 1816, her paper dealing with vibrations on curved and plain surfaces finally won her the acclaim she desired and Marie Sophie Germain became the first woman in the history of the French Academy of Sciences to win a prize in this field.

But what truly defined Sophie’s life and career was the work she devoted to Fermat’s Last Theorem. In this, she found Adrien-Marie Legendre a willing collaborator and the two finally got it right in 1825. This has been deemed one of the most significant works of Germain’s career.  In later life, she also developed an interest in philosophy as well as psychology.

In 1829, Sophie Germain was diagnosed with breast cancer, but this did not slow down her journey towards greatness. In 1831, just two years after being diagnosed with cancer, Sophie’s paper on the curvature of elastic surfaces was finally published in the scientific ‘Crelle’s Journal’ . It is tragic that Sophie Germain lived in an era when women weren’t acknowledged or encouraged to take up scientific pursuits, which is why in spite of achieving so much in her life and now being remembered as one of the most important mathematicians of her time, Sophie Germain was never awarded for any of her work.

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