Today, strange wallpaper, and an unexpected
mathematician. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a photo of a woman in
her mid-thirties -- a striking, open,
strong-featured face. She is Sonya Kovalevsky. Born
to a tyrannical Russian general in 1850 in a remote
country estate in tsarist Russia, she was raised by
a series of governesses. She was complex -- willful
and shy, brilliant and torn by self-doubt.
When she was little, the estate was re-wallpapered.
The paper ran out before they'd finished her
nursery, so someone contrived to cover it with
pages from her father's old calculus text. Sonya
grew up gazing at those pages, craving to
understand them. When she reached university age
she wanted to study mathematics.
Russian universities didn't accept women, and her
father wouldn't let her go to Germany alone. So she
made him believe that she was having an affair with
a young paleontologist, Vladimir Kovalevsky. Her
father demanded a shotgun wedding.
As a married woman, she could travel freely, first
to Heidelberg, then Berlin. Berlin was no more
willing to accept women students than Russia. But
then the great mathematician Weierstrass saw her
brilliance. He took her on as a private pupil and a
life-long friend. She did her doctorate on partial
differential equations and wrote several important
papers. At the age of 25, she returned to Moscow
and to her husband. When she couldn't find work
there, she tried Paris. While she was in Paris, her
Finally the Swedes gave her a teaching post in
Stockholm. During her seven years in Sweden, the
extent to which she lived her life between
emotional highs and lows became very evident. The
year 1889 was a high. She wrote a remarkable
prize-winning paper on rotating bodies. But she
also wrote her second novel.
Writing had been her other passion for a long time.
During her late teens, she, her older sister, and
her mother had spent time in St. Petersburg
visiting Dostoevsky. In any event, like her
mathematics, the novel also won high critical
Two years later she was deeply depressed. Then she
caught the flu on a trip back from Moscow and died
at only 41. All her life she'd drawn people into
her terribly focused life, and she had consumed
them. However, she'd added significantly and
permanently to our understanding of differential
equations and applied mechanics.
She was the first woman mathematician in modern
times to gain full academic recognition for her
genius. A century later, her native country, which
had not welcomed her brilliance while she lived,
issued a stamp with her portrait on it.
No doubt she'd been isolated by her wealth as a
child. But papering her room with that mad
wallpaper had awakened one of the great minds of an
age. Little Sonya Kovalevsky gazed at those mystic
symbols on the wall and saw what we must all
eventually see -- that what one person can do,
another can also do. A little girl saw that those
symbols were not beyond her grasp at all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hapgood, I. F., Notable Women: Sonya Kovalevsky.
Century Magazine, August 1895, pp. 536-539.
This article, written by a woman with a late
nineteenth-century perspective, paints a dreary
picture of Kovalevsky's life and concludes: "... it
would seem ... that a masculine head united to a
feminine heart is likely to prove a very unhappy
combination for a woman."
Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 225.
Hapgood includes the following image of Sonya
Kovalevsky, copied from a Russian photo. (For the
more striking orginal, see Osen's book, above):
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.