January 8 – A Woman - GASP! - Wins a Math / Science Medal

Posted on January 8, 2019

Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was uncommon for women to pursue mathematics and / or science. And so Marie-Sophie Germain, born and raised in Paris France, had no access to higher education and no opportunity to work professionally with other mathematicians and scientists.

She was able to educate herself and work independently well enough to make contributions, anyway. Just think how much more she might have accomplished if her parents and society had supported her!

Actually, it wasn't just lack of support; Germain actually faced roadblocks. For a while her parents so disapproved of her reading mathematics books found in her father's library, they actually tried to freeze her out of her study habits. They wouldn't allow her to have a fire in her bedroom, nor even warm clothes; in order to stay warm, she'd have to get into bed and snuggle up with the quilts.
And back in the late 1700s, it's not like Germain would've had an easy and safe way to sneak a cozy reading session, under the covers, in bed, because there were no such things as battery-run flashlights! 

So Germain wrapped herself in the bed quilts and sat at her desk with her pen and ink and slate and...

Reportedly, when Germain's parents found her asleep still at the desk, with the ink frozen in the ink horn, they relented and stopped throwing up barriers. 

When Germain was 18 years old, a new "polytechnic" college opened. Nowadays this kind of college offers courses in many different technical and / or vocational fields, and I suppose it was the same back then. Of course, it being 1700-something, Germain was not allowed to attend - 

- BUT she (anyone) was allowed to get lecture notes. Anyone who asked for lecture notes was required to submit written observations to the professors, and one of them took notice of Germain's work - which she submitted under the name of a male student, Monsieur Le Blanc. 

The professor was intrigued by the intelligence of this student, and he requested a meeting. Of course, he immediately realized that the student was actually a woman - and HOORAY! - this professor didn't mind that at all. He became her mentor and even visited her in her home. I have a feeling that this helped Germain's parents accept her as a scientist and mathematician.

That professor wasn't just liberal-minded for his time - he was a great mathematicians and astronomer: Joseph-Louis Lagrange made loads of contributions and has his name on some of his significant findings: Lagrange multipliers, Lagrangian points, and Lagrangian mechanics!

Here's another time when Germain pretending to be a man made things confusing:

Germain was writing back and forth with German mathematician / physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss. As she had with Lagrange, Germain used the name M. Le Blanc. After a few years of them corresponding, Germain learned that her country (France) was occupying the German town where Gauss lived. She was worried about Gauss, and her family had connections in the military, so she wrote to an officer, pleading with him to personally make sure that Gauss was safe.

The officer did as she asked, and of course knew Germain by her real name. So picture Gauss face-to-face with a slew of French soldiers who just want to make sure that he's fine (and he was - phew!), and the officer mentioning that he is doing so at the request of Sophie Germain.

Gauss had to be thinking, "Huh? Who's Sophie Germain?" (But in German!)

Months after this happened Gauss learned that Germain was the real name of his pen pal, M. Le Blanc.

Later - on this date in 1816 - Germain became the first woman to win the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences. She did THAT with her own name (although when she first entered the contest, other non-winning years, she did so anonymously) - but she still wasn't allowed to attend sessions of the Academy, because the only women allowed to do that were the wives of members.

I'm happy to report that, seven years after she won, Germain was finally allowed to go to Academy sessions!

Now the French of Academy of Sciences has a Sophie Germain Prize that it awards each year. Both men and women have won it since the award began in 2003.

Here are some other examples of modern-day recognition of Sophie Germain:

Way back in 2011, I wrote about Sophie Germain on her birthday (April 1). Check out that earlier post here.

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