Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Marie-Sophie Germain: Mathematician, Physicist, and Philosopher

Marie-Sophie Germain (born 1 April 1776)

A coin bearing Sophie Germain's profile

Despite the "handicap" of her sex and the opposition of her parents--and then, of course, there were the difficulties about what was acceptable for a woman in eighteenth-century Europe--Marie Sophie Germain pursued her interests in mathematics, numbers theory, mathematical physics, and philosophy. She did so, at least initially, by means of a male pseudonym; as Simon Singh writes, 
In 1794, the École Polytechnique opened in Paris. It was founded as an academy of excellence to train mathematicians and scientists for the nation. This would have been an ideal place for Germain to develop her mathematical skills, except for the fact that it was an institution reserved only for men. Her natural shyness prevented her from confronting the academy's governing body, so instead she resorted to covertly studying at the École by assuming the identity of a former student at the academy, Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc.
The subterfuge was eventually abandoned, and Germain found an excellent mentor and teacher. Her fields of inquiry include acoustics, number theory, and elasticity--she was also interested in Fermat's Last Theorem, proposing "Sophie Germain's Theorem." Her philosophical works, Pensées diverses (Diverse Thoughts) and Considérations générales sur l'état des sciences et des lettres, aux différentes époques de leur culture (General Considerations on the State of Science and Letters in Different Eras of Their Development), were published posthumously.

There is a very accessible discussion of Sophie Germain by Singh, "Math's Hidden Woman," posted at the PBS Nova website. Singh includes a discussion of Germain in his Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem. There's a chapter in Lynne Olsen's Women in Mathematics, a brief biography for young readers, and a work of fiction, a "mathematical novel," for young readers. But there is no full-length, comprehensive biography for adults.

Sophie Germain Street, in Paris
Update, 1 April 2020: Dora Musielak’s Sophie Germain: Revolutionary Mathematician is now available, published as a volume in Springer Biographies.