Of all the scientific disciplines, mathematics suffers the worst gender imbalance of all, mostly due to the perception that boys are better than girls in mathematics. While this is not true, several studies have shown that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in mathematics can indeed measurably lower girls’ performance in this discipline. The classical formulation [...]


Women mathematicians –a struggle for recognition

Continuing our series ‘Women in Science –lost in history’ by Dr. Viduranga Waisundara

Of all the scientific disciplines, mathematics suffers the worst gender imbalance of all, mostly due to the perception that boys are better than girls in mathematics. While this is not true, several studies have shown that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in mathematics can indeed measurably lower girls’ performance in this discipline. The classical formulation of this idea is that men ‘naturally’ excel in mathematics, while women ‘naturally’ excel in disciplines involving language skills. Thus women mathematicians throughout history as well as engineers for that matter, have been consistently overlooked and under-represented with their names unrecognized, their work uncredited and their achievements uncelebrated.

This week, we look at the lives of two relatively unknown (that is, as compared with their male counterparts) women mathematicians who had to endure many bouts of social injustice and cultural prejudice before they were able to get achieve academic success.

Emilie du Chatelet

Born in Paris in 1709, at a time when education for daughters of nobility was viewed with disapproval and education for daughters of the poor were not discussed at all, Emilie was given away in marriage to the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont when she was 18 and he was 34. The marriage came as a blessing in disguise for Emilie, since her husband was mostly tending to his numerous estates or pursuing his passion of participating in the war, leaving her alone in the household to follow her scientific pursuits. She had three children, and with the support of governesses and nurses, she was able to return to her mathematical interests in the night. A daring individual she broke into the ‘old boys’ network’, dressed as a man, visiting clubs and public houses with her male colleagues.

In 1737, Emilie published a paper entitled ‘Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu’ based upon her research on the science of fire. This was one of the first investigations identifying infrared radiation and the nature of light.In the early 18th century, although the concepts of force and momentum had been well understood, the idea of energy transfer between different systems was still in its infancy. However, Emilie hypothesized that total energy was conserved, as distinct from momentum, whereby mechanical, kinetic and potential energy may be lost to another form, but the total energy is conserved in time.

It is stated that Emilie conducted an experiment in which balls were dropped from different heights into a sheet of soft clay. The kinetic energy of each ball, as indicated by the quantity of material displaced, was shown to be proportional to the square of the velocity. This observation essentially displaced previous theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Voltaire who believed that energy was indistinct from momentum and therefore proportional to velocity.

Emilie’s most significant scientific achievement to date is her translation of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Although this was published posthumously, it is still considered the standard French translation of the textbook that made Newton’s work available to the French mathematicians. Nevertheless, Voltaire, her lover, received credit for the writing since women were not allowed to publish under their own name.

Consequently, many have attributed Emilie’s contributions to science and philosophy to others or ignored them completely. Nevertheless, as Voltaire himself declared ‘du Châtelet was a great man whose only fault was being a woman’. Emilie passed away in 1749 at the age of 42 due to a pulmonary embolism following childbirth.

Sophie Germain

The daughter of a wealthy silk merchant in France, Sophie Germain was born in Paris in 1776 and did not attend school for the simple fact that women in France were not allowed entry into schools during that period. When Sophie was 13, the Bastille fell resulting in her being confined indoors. She found solace in her father’s library. To pass the time, she taught herself Latin and also explored the writings of Archimedes. Sophie was of the opinion that if geometry could hold such fascination for Archimedes, it was a subject worthy of study.

Sophie’s parents did not at all approve of her sudden fascination with mathematics. In the evening, they would deny her warm clothes and a fire for her bedroom to try to keep her from studying. However, after they left she would take out candles, wrap herself in quilts and study. At times, her family found her asleep at her desk in the morning, the ink frozen in the ink horn and her slate covered with calculations.

Sophie was 18 years old when the Ecole Polytechnique was established in Paris. However, as a woman she was denied entry into the premises. Nevertheless, she was able to obtain lecture notes and began sending her work to a faculty member Joseph Louis Lagrange under the name Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc. When Lagrange saw the significance of M. Le Blanc, he requested a meeting, whereupon Sophie was forced to disclose her true identity. Fortunately, Lagrange did not mind that she was a woman and became her mentor providing her with moral support for her academic initiatives.

Sophie could be recognized as the pioneer in the number theory. This was further stimulated when she read Carl Friedrich Gauss’ monumental work Disquisitiones Arithmeticae. After three years of working through the exercises and trying her own proofs for some of the theorems she wrote to Gauss under the pseudonym of M. LeBlanc forming a friendship. Nevertheless, despite their correspondence, Sophie and Gauss never met each other in person.

Sophie avidly studied elasticity of materials. It is believed that the Eiffel Tower was designed and constructed using the theories of elasticity developed by Sophie. Sophie took an interest in a contest sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences concerning Ernst Chladni’s experiments with vibrating metal plates. The object of the competition was to give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence. Sophie’s initial entry did not win the prize. However, the contest was extended by two years, and Germain decided to try for the prize again. This time around, her entry received only an honorable mention. The contest was extended once more, and Sophie began working on her third attempt. This, she submitted under her own name, and became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences. Even after winning the contest, she was still not able to attend the Academy’s sessions due to the tradition of excluding women other than the wives of members.

Sophie was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 53. Nevertheless, she continued her mathematical work on the curvature of elastic surfaces, which led to the discovery of the laws of equilibrium and movement of elastic solids. Six years after Sophie passed away, when the matter of honorary degrees came up at the University of Göttingen, Gauss stated that she proved to the world that even a woman can accomplish something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of sciences and for that reason would well have deserved an honorary degree.

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer (Temporary), Technology Programme, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka, Mihintale)


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