Monday, March 7, 2011

Introduction & Chapter 1: Sophie Germain

Introduction: (Holy crap, March is here already!)
One important reason to love this in-between seasons, almost-Spring month of March is that it is a time to celebrate Women's History.

Something you all should know about me is that I love talking about women. I love talking about the roles they play in their lives. I love talking about their strength, their perseverance, and the crap they've had to endure to get to where they are now. And I love saying all this wearing a skirt and make-up.

Since the beginning of time, these double x-chromosomed creatures have birthed new beings and raised posterity for generations and generations. But, they have also developed similar mental and physical capacity as their male counterparts, too! Indeed, the role of women has diversified itself through the ages, evolving from gatherer and homemaker to Computer Scientist Barbie.

Regardless of one's own opinion of how this progress helps or hinders the meaning of a female-bodied persyn's worth, the meanings behind the struggles endured to attain equal rights should still be noted and celebrated.

Chapter 1: Sophie Germain

Germain grew up in 18th century France to a very traditional bourgeois family -- her father worked as a silk merchant and little is known about her mother or her interests. Sophie and her father held very different opinions about what women should be doing with their time. Sophie would plow through the books in her father's library, absorbing all information like a sponge and craving more. She took a liking to mathematics, particularly Calculus and Number Theory, and would study the works of Newton and Euler by candlelight.

Her father caught her studying at night many times and often confiscated her materials, leaving her body cold and her mind hungry. When she did not have a secret stash of papers and writing utensils to fall back on, the nights were long and torturous. After finding her asleep at her desk on more than a few occasions, her slumbering face set atop of papers with equations and calculations, her mother secretly supported her educational endeavor.

Germain finally got the opportunity to exchange correspondence with Adrien-Marie Legendre, who was lecturing on number theory at the Ecole Polytechnique. She had no choice but to write letters as a man, and they soon became distant colleagues working to solve Fermat's Last Theorem.

Over the years Germain collaborated with Friedrich Gauss on the [in]famous Last Theorem, finally revealing her true identity and gender, to his amazement and awe. Although their correspondence ceased as their areas of study shifted, it is a pivotal point in women's history (and the history of mathematics) that Germain was considered an equal colleague of so many influential mathematicians.

Sophie Germain was one of the first female mathematicians that I learned of once I began pursuing the subject as an avid 7th grader. To me, mathematics and the patterns found therein gave the secrets to some kind of magic. Math was something a lot of peers my age, a lot of female peers, would typically dismiss as "too hard" and I found myself enjoying the challenge rather than despising it. The curiosity and the risk-taking involved at getting an answer "wrong" is the good-stuff in life: it gives us feedback that we can use to make things better, gives us evidence with which to predict what will occur next, and it gives us the faith to know that we can always give ourselves another chance to make something perfect.

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