Today, we meet a fascinating lady. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Here's a photo of a woman in
her mid-thirties. She's beautiful by any yardstick
-- a fine open face with full, strong features --
clear steady eyes. The woman is Sonya Kovalevsky,
and she was a very complex person. Born to a
tyrannical Russian general in 1850, she was both
willful and shy -- brilliant and torn by
Little Sonya's nursery had, because of a wallpaper
shortage, been covered with pages from her father's
old calculus text. She gazed for hours at those
pages, craving to understand them. When she reached
university age she wanted to study mathematics. But
Russian universities didn't accept women, and her
father wouldn't let her go off to Germany alone.
So she contracted a marriage of convenience to a
young paleontologist -- Vladimir Kovalevsky. And as
a married woman she was able to travel freely --
first to Heidelberg and then to Berlin. Berlin was
no more willing to accept women than St. Petersburg
had been. But when the great mathematician
Weierstrass saw her brilliance, he took her on as
both a private pupil and a lifelong friend.
She finished her doctorate on partial differential
equations and several other important papers before
she was 25. Then she returned to her husband and to
Moscow to look for work. That failed, and she tried
Paris. While she was there her husband died.
Finally the Swedes gave her a teaching post in
She lived her whole life between emotional highs
and lows. And this was very evident during her
seven years in Sweden. 1889 was a high. She wrote a
remarkable prize-winning paper on rotating bodies,
and she wrote her second novel. The novel also won
high critical praise. Two years later she was
deeply depressed. Then she caught flu on the way
back from a trip to Moscow and died.
She was only 41, but she'd really advanced 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. In fact, Russia, which had been so
unwelcoming during most of her life, now issued a
stamp with her portrait on it.
No doubt she had in some way been badly hurt as a
child. But when her father papered her room with
that mad wallpaper, he 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 fool can
do, another fool can also do. A little girl saw
that those symbols weren't beyond her grasp at all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974.
Hapgood, I. F., Notable Women: Sonya Kovalevsky.
Century Magazine, August 1895, pp. 536-539.
This article, written by a woman with a late
19th-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."
Hapgood also includes the following portrait of
Sonya Kovalevsky, copied from a Russian photo and
less striking than the real photo in Osen's book:
This episode has been greatly rewritten as
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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