Women in Mathematics Every human is created with a gift of some sort. Whether it is an athletic ability, a wonderful singing voice, or an ability to relate to other individuals, every one has a special gifting. For many women in history, their ability was deciphering and understanding the intricacies of math. Although various cultures discouraged women mathematicians, these women were able to re-define the standards for women in this field of study. Hypatia of Alexandria was born in Roman Egypt and was the daughter of a teacher of mathematics, Theon of Alexandria.
Hypatia studied with her father as well as with many other mathematicians. When she was older, she taught at the Neoplatonist school of philosophy. She wrote on mathematics, philosophy, as well as anatomy. Her studies covered the motion of the planets, conic sections, and number theory, which is “one of the oldest branches of pure mathematics, and one of the largest. It concerns questions about numbers, typically meaning whole numbers as well as rational numbers. Although little information about Hypatia survives, it has been discovered that she was a very popular lecturer that drew students from various locations.
She is known for her invention of the plane astrolabe, which is an elaborate inclinometer with the ability to locate and predict the locations of the sun, moon, planets, and stars and the graduated brass hydrometer which was used to determine the relative density or specific gravity of liquids. Hypatia’s teachings were not accepted by the Christian bishop, Cyril due to her pagan beliefs. His public dislike towards her is said to have been the cause of the attack by a mob that lead to her death.
Most of her work was destroyed when the library of Alexandria was burned by the Arab conquerors, however, her studies have been discovered through the work of others who quoted her as well as through letters. I believe Hypatia was one of the first inspirational women mathematicians. Despite the danger she knew she was facing, she chose to do what she enjoyed. Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born in 1646 in Venice into the family of a public official. Her father provided the means of education to his children.
Elena was recognized as a child prodigy when she was seven years old by a parish priest. She then began to study theology, mathematics, Latin, Greek, and music. Clerics, royals, and scientists came to Venice to speak with her due to the widespread attraction of her achievements. As she grew older, Elena was the first woman to apply in theology at a university in Italy. She was also the first woman to earn a doctoral degree. After receiving her master’s and doctorate degrees in philosophy, she went on to become a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Padua until her death in 1684.
Although she is not famous for discovering any particular math problem, she was very influential in her time and inspired many other women to pursue mathematics. Maria Agnesi was born in Italy in 1718 and was the daughter of Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy nobleman and professor of mathematics. Maria, like Elena, was recognized as a child prodigy and was taught five languages. Her father invited his colleagues over for Maria to present speeches to. By the age of 13 Maria was able to debate in French, Spanish, and Latin.
Although Maria did not enjoy giving the speeches, she continued until the age of twenty. That year, Maria made a compilation of the speeches she had given over the years and published them in Latin. The title of the compilations in English is “Philosophical Propositions. ” The topics included celestial mechanics, which refers to the branch of astronomy that deals with the motions of celestial objects and applies to the field of physics, Isaac Newton’s Gravitation Theory that states that any two objects in the universe exert gravitational attraction on each other, and elasticity.
Maria’s father married twice after the death of her mother, causing her to be the eldest of 21 children. She was required to provide education to her siblings. Maria wrote a mathematics textbook over the course of ten years which was titled” Instituzioni Analitiche” which was published in 1748 in two volumes. The first volume contained information on algebra, arithmetic, trigonometry, analytic geometry, and calculus. The second covered infinite series and differential equations. Due to her ability to understand many languages, Maria was able to bring together various ideas from mathematicians of all cultures.
The name “witch of Agnesi” refers to a mathematical problem of finding the equation for a certain bell-shaped curve which was named after her by English mathematician John Colson. When Maria’s father passed in 1752, Maria discontinued the education she had been providing to her siblings and devoted her life to helping the less fortunate. I found Maria’s story to be very admirable due to the extreme selflessness she possessed. Although she desired to further her mathematical studies, she spent a large portion of her life educating her younger siblings, and spent the remaining time devoted to the poor.
Sophie Germain was born in France in 1776 and was the daughter of Ambroise-Francois Germain, who was a wealthy middle class silk merchant and a French politician. During Sophie’s childhood, the French Revolution was occurring, so Sophie was kept isolated from the chaos by staying in her home with her two sisters. She chose to pass the time by reading through the books in her father’s extended library. Sophie was particularly fond of the story of Archimedes of Syracuse who was killed while reading geometry. To see a man so captivated by a subject influenced her to pursue math.
Sophie taught mathematics to herself in her native language as well as in Latin and Greek so as to be able to gain understanding from a wider range of mathematic books. Her family was not particularly fond of her studying, but she was so enthralled by mathematics that she studied at night until her family accepted what she loved. In eighteenth century France, women were not normally accepted into universities, however, Sophie was able to borrow the notes from mathematic professors and was able to send comments about the work to the professors by hiding behind the pseudonym of a male, “M. e Blanc. ” Sophie Germain studied number theory and Chladni figures, which is a technique that shows the various modes of vibration of a rigid surface. Her study of these figures was the foundation to the mathematics used today when constructing skyscrapers. Her study of number theory lead to partial progress on Fermat’s Last Theorem, which states that if x, y, z, and n are integers then xn + yn = zn cannot be solved for any n greater than 2. Sophie was able to show that for prime exponents less than 100, there could be no solutions relatively prime to the exponent of that number.
After this work, she was accepted into sessions at the Institut de France and became the first woman with this privilege. She died in 1831 of breast cancer. I believe Sophie is inspirational due to her extreme intelligence by finding an addition to Fermat’s two-century’s old theorem. Had she not been diligent in pursuing mathematics although it was inconvenient, she would have never been presented the opportunity to impart such knowledge into history. Sonya Kovalevskaya was drawn to mathematics in a rather peculiar way.
As a young child, born in 1850 in Russia, Sonya was mesmerized by the lecture notes of Mikhail Ostrogradsky on differential and integral calculus that made up the wallpaper of her family’s estate. Sonya’s father did not allow her to study mathematics abroad, and Russia did not allow women to attend the universities, thus Sonya was forced to find an alternative means of furthering her education. She entered into a marriage of convenience with Vladimir Kovalensky, and left Russia with him and her sister. Sonya went on to Heidelberg where she was granted permission to study at the university.
Two years later, she went on to study mathematics with Karl Weierstrass who assisted her in pursuing a degree in mathematics. Sonya’s dissertation on partial differential equations, which refers to an equation that contains unknown multivariable functions and their partial derivatives, resulted in receiving a doctorate without having attended any class at the university and is today called the Cauch-Kovelevskaya Theorem. Sonya was also awarded with the Prix Bordin from the French Academie Royale des Sciences for her research over how Saturn’s rings rotated, now referred to as the Kovelevskaya top.
She also was appointed to a chair at the Swedish Academy of Sciences- making her the first woman to receive this title. I believe her story is especially inspirational due to her ground-breaking achievements including titles and positions that had never been awarded to women before. All of these women pioneers of mathematics teach a very valuable lesson. The culture during the time of these five particular women did not accept the studies that these mathematicians longed to be educated in.
Their extreme ability, or gifting, of solving problems and assembling theorems was not only widely unaccepted, it was also widely unappreciated. Even after the accomplishments of these women, their work is often undermined. In the midst of opposing forces telling them they should not, or even could not go into the field of mathematics, they believed in their ability enough to pursue it whole-heartedly and in return, they have left a legacy and have inspired women to fight what is culturally accepted to follow what is in your heart, and the things for which you have a particular talent in.
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