Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Sofia Kovalevskaya
Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya
ca 1880
Most of you will never have heard of Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (Сoфья Васильевна Ковалeвская) -- or Sophie/Sonya Kovalevski as she used to call herself in the Latin writing world. Those who have heard of her may wonder why I portray her on my literature blog since she was a nineteenth century mathematician. As a matter of fact, she also was a writer, not a very famous one, but she produced autobiographical works, a novel, and plays along with her much acclaimed mathematical papers. She said that she found it hard to decide which inclination was stronger in her, that for mathematics or that for literature. 

In January 1850 Sofia Kovalevskaya, née Korvin-Krukovskaya, was born in Moscow into a Russian family of minor nobility. Her interest in mathematics was sparked by her uncle Pyotr who not only told her fairy tales, but also talked about circles, asymptotes and other mysterious things that she couldn’t understand yet. Later a part of the walls of her room was patched up with pages from lecture notes on differential and integral analysis that attracted her attention and reminded her of her uncle’s stories. However, she was raised to be a lady and her father considered mathematical education unnecessary for a girl. 

The teenage Sofia Kovalevskaya continued her studies secretly and even rediscovered on her own the concept of sine. A neighbour of the family, a science teacher who had written the physics textbook that she had studied, was impressed by the girl’s mathematical talent and tried to persuade her father to allow Sofia to continue her studies. Eventually, he agreed and sent her to St. Petersburg for private lessons. In order to be able to further pursue her studies abroad (women weren’t admitted to Russian universities at the time, nor to travel without permission of their father or husband) she entered into a marriage of convenience with the palaeontologist Vladimir Kovalevski at the age of 18. 

In Heidelberg, Germany, Sofia Kovalevskaya was allowed to audit lectures at the university provided that all lecturers approved of it. For two years she studied with Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen. Then she moved on to Berlin to study with Karl Weierstrass, the most renowned mathematician of the time. Women not being admitted to the University of Berlin, she had to take private lessons. She wrote three papers (one of them containing the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem) that in 1974 earned her, the first European woman ever, a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude from the University of Göttingen without having attended classes there. 

Not being able to obtain a position at a university, she returned to Russia disappointed and joined her husband. For six years Sofia Kovalevskaya set aside mathematics and followed her literary ambitions. She reviewed plays, wrote articles about science and technology for a newspaper and worked on a novel. In 1878 she gave birth to her daughter Sofia called Foufie. The following year she resumed her mathematical research and left her husband. The Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom Sofia Kovalevskaya knew from Berlin, tried to obtain a position at the University of Stockholm for her, but didn’t succeed until her husband’s suicide in 1883. 

In 1883 Sofia Kovalevskaya moved to Stockholm, Sweden, and worked as a privat docent for less than a year. Because of her big success with the students, she was appointed to a professorship without chair for five years in 1884 and was the first woman asked to be a member of the editorial board of a mathematical journal, the influential Acta Mathematica. Along with her research and teaching work she continued writing articles for newspapers and finished her memoir A Russian Childhood and the novel The Nihilist Girl. In addition she wrote the play The Struggle for Happiness in collaboration with Duchess Anne Charlotte Edgren-Leffler. 

In 1888 she won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science for a paper in which she worked out the ‘Kovalevsky top’. The following year the University of Stockholm offered her a lifetime chair as professor of mathematics which made her the third woman in European history to hold a chair at a university after the physicist Laura Bassi and mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. She was also elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but to her regret she was never offered a chair at a Russian university. 

In February 1891 Sofia Kovalevskaya died in Sweden from influenza complicated by pneumonia.

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