April 1, 2011

April Fool's Day

See last year's post for some Foolish fun and facts!

Also, Happy Birthday, Sophie Germain

This French mathematician was born on April Fool's Day in 1776 (no kidding!). She made contributions in number theory, acoustics, and elasticity.

Because she was a woman, her parents didn't want her to get a higher education—so she read books from her father's library and wrote letters to important mathematicians. To try to discourage her from studying at night, her parents wouldn't allow her to have warm clothes or a fire in her bedroom; so, after they went to sleep, she would wrap herself in her bedding and light a candle and read, compute, and study. (Her parents relented after finding her one morning, asleep at her desk, the ink frozen in its horn, and papers covered in calculations.) Because Germain was a woman, she couldn't have a career as a mathematician, so she worked independently all her life.

Sophie Germain's work on Fermat's Last Theorem provided a foundation for mathematicians for the following centuries, and her work on elasticity won grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences.

Germain also studied philosophy and psychology. Long after her death (caused by breast cancer), a street and a girls' school were named after her.

Nowadays, people who have studied Germain's work are convinced that she had a brilliant mind, but also that her contributions were limited by her lack of educational opportunity.

And that is no joke...

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