Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 223:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 223.

Today, we meet a lady whose name isn't inscribed in the Eiffel Tower. 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.

The names of 72 important scholars who founded the science and mathematics of structures are written in the Eiffel Tower. Sophie Germain belongs on that list, but she isn't there -- no women are.

Sophie Germain was born into a well-to-do Parisian family in 1776 -- born into a world that was still hostile to bright women. And she was bright. She was 13 when the French stormed the Bastille, and her parents put her under virtual house arrest to keep her from the dangers of those stormy times. She went off into the large family library and began to teach herself mathematics -- much to her parents' alarm. They tried to keep her from it by removing the heat and clothing from her bedroom. When they found her asleep and wrapped in bedclothes, among stolen candles, calculations, and a frozen inkwell, they were wise enough to give in. Sophie spent the Reign of Terror studying calculus.

By then the French were creating the new field of applied mathematical analysis. The work centered on the Ecole Polytechnique -- the great French technical university. The Ecole didn't admit women, so she learned by studying other people's class notes. When she started doing original work, she hid her femininity behind the alias M. LeBlanc. She used that name to correspond with two extraordinary mathematicians -- first with LaGrange and then with Gauss.

Both were quite taken with her work, and they encouraged her -- even after they found out who she really was. Then, in 1811, she made the first of three assaults on a standing prize offered by the Academy of Sciences. The problem was to describe the vibration of an elastic plate -- like the top of a violin, or a flat structural member. This first effort netted her only some gentle criticism from LaGrange. Her second try, two years later, won an Honorable Mention. Then, in 1816, she won the Grand Prix. Suddenly, at 40, she was accepted into the company of the great applied mathematicians of all time: Navier, Poisson, Fourier, Ampère, Legendre -- names every engineering student knows today.

She did a great deal during the next 15 years, particularly in the applied mathematics used to design structures like the Eiffel Tower and in pure number theory. In 1831 Gauss arranged for her to receive an honorary doctorate at Göttingen University in Germany. She spent that spring working in terrible pain with breast cancer. She was only 55 when she died in June -- too soon actually to meet Gauss -- too soon to go to Göttingen -- and too soon to receive the recognition that eventually came to her.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974, pp. 83-93.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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