### By Maria Popova

A century after the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet popularized Newton and paved the path for women in science, and a few decades before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville,

**Sophie Germain**

(April 1, 1776–June 27, 1831) gave herself an education using her

father’s books and became a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and

astronomer, who pioneered elasticity theory and made significant

contributions to number theory.

In lieu of a formal education, unavailable to women until more than a century later,

Germain supplemented her reading and her natural gift for science by

exchanging letters with some of the era’s most prominent mathematicians.

Among her famous correspondents was Carl Friedrich Gauss, considered by

many scholars the greatest mathematician who ever lived. Writing under

the male pseudonym M. LeBlanc — “fearing the ridicule attached to a

female scientist,” as she herself later explained — Germain began

sharing with Gauss some of her theorem proofs in response to his magnum

opus

*Disquisitiones Arithmeticae*.

Their correspondence began in 1804, at the peak of the French

occupation of Prussia. In 1806, Germain received news that Napoleon’s

troops were about to enter Gauss’s Prussian hometown of Brunswick.

Terrified that her faraway mentor might suffer the fate of Archimedes,

who was killed when Roman forces conquered Syracuse after a two-year

siege, she called on a family friend — the French military chief M.

Pernety — to find Gauss in Brunswick and ensure his safety. Pernety

tasked one of his battalion commanders with traveling two hundred miles

to the occupied Brunswick in order to carry out the rescue mission.

But Gauss, it turned out, was unscathed by the war. In a letter from

November 27 of 1806, included in the altogether fascinating

**(**

*Sophie Germain: An Essay in the History of the Theory of Elasticity**public library*), the somewhat irate battalion commander reports to his chief:

Just arrived in this town and have bruised myself with

your errand. I have asked several persons for the address of Gauss, at

whose residence I was to gather some news on your and Sophie Germain’s

behalf. M. Gauss replied that he did not have the honor of knowing you

or Mlle. Germain… After I had spoken of the different points contained

in your order, he seemed a little confused and asked me to convey his

thanks for your consideration on his behalf.

Upon receiving the comforting if somewhat comical news, Germain felt

obliged to write to Gauss and clear his confusion about his would-be

savior’s identity. After coming out as the woman behind the M. LeBlanc

persona in a letter from February 20 of 1807, she tells Gauss:

The appreciation I owe you for the encouragement you haveGauss responds a few weeks later:

given me, in showing me that you count me among the lovers of sublime

arithmetic whose mysteries you have developed, was my particular

motivation for finding out news of you at a time when the troubles of

the war caused me to fear for your safety; and I have learned with

complete satisfaction that you have remained in your house as

undisturbed as circumstances would permit. I hope, however, that these

events will not keep you too long from your astronomical and especially

your arithmetical researches, because this part of science has a

particular attraction for me, and I always admire with new pleasure the

linkages between truths exposed in your book.

Mademoiselle,With this, Gauss extends the gift of constructive criticism on some

Your letter … was for me the source of as much pleasure as surprise.

How pleasant and heartwarming to acquire a friend so flattering and

precious. The lively interest that you have taken in me during this war

deserves the most sincere appreciation. Your letter to General Pernety

would have been most useful to me, if I had needed special protection on

the part of the French government.

Happily, the events and consequences of war have not affected me so

much up until now, although I am convinced that they will have a large

influence on the future course of my life. But how I can describe my

astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M.

LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person, yielding a copy so

brilliant it is hard to believe? The taste for the abstract sciences in

general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare: this

is not surprising, since the charms of this sublime science in all

their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to

fathom them. But when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and

prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in

familiarizing herself with their knotty problems, yet overcomes these

fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the

most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius. Nothing

could prove me in a more flattering and less equivocal way that the

attractions of that science, which have added so much joy to my life,

are not chimerical, than the favor with which you have honored it.

The scientific notes which your letters are so richly filled have

given me a thousand pleasures. I have studied them with attention, and I

admire the ease with which you penetrate all branches of arithmetic,

and the wisdom with which you generalize and perfect. I ask you to take

it as proof of my attention if I dare to add a remark to your last

letter.

mathematical solutions Germain had shared with him — the same gift which

trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller bestowed upon Thoreau,

which shaped his career. Although Gauss eventually disengaged from the

exchange, choosing to focus on his scientific work rather than on

correspondence, he remained an admirer of Germain’s genius. He advocated

for the University of Gottingen to award her a posthumous honorary

degree, for she had accomplished, despite being a woman and therefore

ineligible for actually attending the University, “something worthwhile

in the most rigorous and abstract of sciences.”

She was never awarded the degree.

After the end of their correspondence, Germain heard that the Paris Academy of Sciences had announced a

*prix extraordinaire*

— a gold medal valued at 3,000 francs, roughly $600 then or about

$11,000 now — awarded to whoever could explain an exciting new physical

phenomenon scientists had found in the vibration of thin elastic

surfaces. The winning contestant would have to “give the mathematical

theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory

to experimental evidence.”

The problem appeared so difficult that it discouraged all other

mathematicians except Germain and the esteemed Denis Poisson from

tackling it. But Poisson was elected to the Academy shortly after the

award was announced and therefore had to withdraw from competing. Only

Germain remained willing to brave the problem. She began work on it in

1809 and submitted her paper in the autumn of 1811. Despite being the

only entrant, she lost — the jurors ruled that her proofs were

unconvincing.

Germain persisted — because no solution had been accepted, the

Academy extended the competition by two years, and she submitted a new

paper, anonymously, in 1813. It was again rejected. She decided to try a

third time and shared her thinking with Poisson, hoping he would

contribute some useful insight. Instead, he borrowed heavily from her

ideas and published his own work on elasticity, giving Germain no

credit. Since he was the editor of the Academy’s journal, his paper was

accepted and printed in 1814.

Still, Germain persisted. On January 8, 1816, she submitted a third

paper under her own name. Her solution was still imperfect, but the

jurors decided that it was as good as it gets given the complexity of

the problem and awarded her the prize, which made her the first woman to

win an accolade from the Paris Academy of Sciences.

But even with the prize in tow, Germain was not allowed to attend

lectures at the Academy — the only women permitted to audit were the

wives of members. She decided to self-publish her winning essay, in

large part in order to expose Poisson’s theft and point out errors in

his proof. She went on to do foundational mathematical work on

elasticity, as well as work in philosophy and psychology a century

before the latter was a formal discipline. Like Rachel Carson,

Germain continued to work as she was dying of breast cancer. A paper

she published shortly before her terminal diagnosis precipitated the

discovery the laws of movement and equilibrium of elastic solids.

Her unusual life and enduring scientific legacy are discussed in great detail in the biography

**. Complement it with the stories of how Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer, how physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission, was denied the Nobel Prize, but led the way for women in science anyway, and how Harvard’s unsung 19th-century female astronomers revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before women could vote.**

*Sophie Germain*
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