Marie-Sophie Germain was a self-taught French mathematician who worked on many path breaking mathematical theories in the late 18th and early 19th century. Germain could not go to school due to the break out of the French Revolution when she was a child but she did not let that deter her from learning and she taught herself fundamentals of mathematics with the help of books stocked in her father’s library. Sophie Germain worked on number theory and elasticity for years; she also worked on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem for years before she was finally able to prove it towards the end of her career. She found it tough to get acceptance as a woman in a field that was then dominated by men and in fact the participation of women wasn’t encouraged; however that did not stop her from pursuing her goals. Sophie Germain corresponded with some of the leading mathematicians of the time using a pseudonym and got on with her work that goes to show the sort of odds she had to fight against in order to have a career as an independent mathematician.
Marie-Sophie Germain was born in Paris, France on 1 April 1776 to Ambrose-Francois Germain and Marie-Madeline Germain. There is some dispute regarding the exact occupation of her father but according to most accounts he was either a prosperous merchant who dealt in silks or a goldsmith. She had two sisters; one elder and one younger.
Sophie Germain was only 13 years old when the French Revolution took place and that was the reason why she had to stay indoors due to the highly inflammable atmosphere in Paris. However, she taught herself the fundamentals of mathematics by going through several books on the subject that were kept at her father’s private library.
In 1794, Germain decided to take advantage of the mathematics curriculum at the newly opened Ecole Polytechnique. Although as per rules women were barred from Polytechniqu , she was allowed to get hold of the lectures. Joseph-Louis Legrange, a mathematician at the institute became her mentor. She used a male pseudonym M. LeBlanc in her correspondence so that people could not figure out that she was a woman.
In 1798, Sophie Germain became interested in number theory after going through the book ‘Theorie des Nombres’ published by the mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre. Germain sent her some of her own ideas on the subject of number theory and elasticity, which the mathematician published as supplement of the second edition of his original book.
After reading Carl Friedrich Gauss’ book ‘Disquisitiones Arithmeticae’, Sophie Germain wrote to the author in 1804 regarding her own ideas in relation to Fermat’s Last Theorem. According to many, Germain’s theories did not have solid proofs and she never got a response from Gauss regarding this subject.
The French Academy of Sciences conducted a mathematics competition in which the contestants had to produce a mathematical explanation in relation to the experiments carried out by the scientist Ernst F.F. Chladini on vibrating plates. Germain submitted her work in 1811, two years after the prize was announced but her paper was rejected. The mathematician Adrien-Marie Legendre stated that Germain’s theory was not a universal one.
Sophie Germain continued to strive for the mathematics prize offered by the French Academy of Sciences and after repeatedly failing to impress the judges; she finally won the prize in 1816 on her paper that dealt with vibrations on curved and planes surfaces. She was the first woman to be bestowed with that prize.
Throughout the latter part of her career Sophie Germain worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem and in collaboration with Legendre she finally got it right in the year 1825. It was the greatest work of Germain’s career. She also studied a bit of philosophy as well as psychology later on in life.
Sophie Germain was diagnosed with breast cancer in the year 1829 but that did not deter her from continuing to work on her theories and two years after being diagnosed; her paper on curvature of elastic surfaces was published in the scientific journal ‘Crelle’s Journal’.
Sophie Germain was one of the most important mathematicians of her era. She did pioneering work in her field in number theory and her most important work was that of proving Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Awards & Achievements
Sophie Germain lived in an era when women weren’t encouraged to take up scientific pursuits and hence even though she achieved a lot in her life as a mathematician; she was not awarded with any prize. However, she did go on to become the first woman to win the mathematics prize awarded by the French Academy of Prizes but that wasn’t an award but a prize she won as part of a competition.
Personal Life & Legacy
Sophie Germain remained unmarried all her life and was not known to have had any romantic relationship either.
Sophie Germain died on 27 June 1831 after suffering from breast cancer for two years.