Tuesday, April 26, 2005

An interesting story...

"THIS is the true story of Sophie Germain, an 18th century woman who assumed a man's identity to pursue a passion and attempt Fermat's Last Theorem.
...this sudden interest in such an 'unfeminine' subject worried her parents and they tried desperately to deter her. A family friend, Count Guglielmo Libri-Carrucci Dalla Sommaja, wrote how Sophie's father confiscated her candles and clothes and removed any heating in order to discourage her. She responded by maintaining a secret cache of candles and wrapping herself in bedclothes. Such was her determination that her parents eventually relented and gave Sophie their blessing. Germain never married. Throughout her career, her father funded her research and supported her efforts to break into the community of mathematicians. There were none in the family who could introduce her to the latest ideas and her tutors refused to take her seriously. In 1794, the Ecole Polytechnique opened in Paris, founded as an academy of excellence to train mathematicians and scientists for the nation. But since it was an institution reserved only for men, Germain resorted to covertly studying at the Ecole by assuming the identity of a former student, Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc. The academy's administration was unaware that the real Monsieur Le Blanc had left Paris and continued to print lecture notes and problems for him. Germain managed to obtain these and each week she would submit answers to the problems under her new pseudonym.

Everything went according to plan until the course supervisor, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, could no longer ignore the brilliance of Monsieur Le Blanc's answer sheets. Not only were 'his' solutions marvellously ingenious, they showed a remarkable transformation in a student who had previously been notorious for abysmal mathematical skills. Lagrange, one of the finest mathematicians of the 19th century, requested a meeting with the reformed student and Germain was forced to reveal her true identity. Lagrange was astonished and pleased to meet the young woman and became her mentor and friend. At last Germain had a teacher who could inspire her and with whom she could be open about her skills and ambitions. She grew in confidence and moved from solving problems in her course work to studying unexplored areas of mathematics. Inevitably she came to hear of Fermat's Last Theorem and worked on the problem for several years, eventually reaching the stage where she believed she'd made an important breakthrough. She needed to discuss her ideas with a fellow number theorist and decided she to go straight to the top and consult the greatest number theorist in the world - German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.

...[Gauss] never published anything on Fermat's Last Theorem. In one letter he even displayed contempt for the problem. But when he received Germain's letters, he was impressed by her breakthrough and temporarily forgot his ambivalence towards Fermat's Last Theorem. Germain adopted a new approach to the problem, which was far more general than previous strategies. Her immediate goal was not to prove that one particular equation had no solutions but to say something about several equations.
Germain's work on Fermat's Last Theorem was to be her greatest contribution to mathematics, but initially she was given no credit. When she wrote to Gauss she was still in her 20s, and though she'd gained a reputation in Paris, she feared he wouldn't take her seriously because of her gender. So she once again took to signing her letters as Monsieur Le Blanc. Her fear and respect for him is evident from one of her letters to him: 'Unfortunately, the depth of my intellect does not equal the voracity of my appetite, and I feel a kind of temerity in troubling a man of genius when I have no other claim to his attention than an admiration necessarily shared by all his readers.' Unaware of his correspondent's true identity, Gauss tried to put Germain at ease and replied, 'I am delighted that arithmetic has found in you so able a friend.' Germain's contribution would have been forever wrongly attributed to the mysterious Monsieur Le Blanc had it not been for Emperor Napoleon. In 1806, he was invading Prussia and the French army was storming through one German city after another. She feared Archimedes' fate might befall her other great hero Gauss, so she sent a message to her friend, General Joseph-Marie Pernety, asking that he guarantee Gauss's safety. The general was no scientist but he was aware of the world's greatest mathematician, and, as requested, he took special care of Gauss, explaining to him that he owed his life to Mademoiselle Germain. Gauss was grateful but surprised, for he had never heard of Sophie Germain. The game was up. In her next letter to Gauss she reluctantly revealed her identity. Far from being angry at the deception, Gauss wrote back to her delighting in the fact that 'when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudices, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarise herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius'.In 1808, their relationship ended abruptly and within a year she abandoned pure mathematics. Towards the end of her life, she re-established a relationship with Gauss, who convinced the University of G"ttingen to award her an honorary degree but before it could bestow this honour on her, she died of breast cancer."
(Asia Africa Intelligence Wire,
2005 The Statesman (India)
February 8, 2005
Headline: Mathematic's Feminine Face
Body: Surajit Dasgupta)

No comments: