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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776 – June 27, 1831)

Posted May 29, 2007 9:58 AM by MintyFresh@GS
Pathfinder Tags: April 1 June 27

Sophie Germain pursued her interests in mathematics and physics by conquering great subjects under a veil of secrecy - and without ever receiving due credit for her contributions to either field. It was her love of these subjects that drove her to add so many valuable insights to number theory, applied mathematics, and physics (the elasticity of metals, and acoustics). Germain's ideas and work contributed to the engineering of the Eiffel Tower, yet she went unrecognized. By contrast, 72 other scientists - all male - were honored with an inscription on the structure. Not even her death certificate gives her due justice. It lists her profession as a "rentier" or property holder, but not as a mathematician.

During a time of chauvinism and prejudice, Sophie Germain persevered. Because of her sex, she was forced to correspond under the pseudonym of "Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc," a former student at the École Polytechnique, a Paris institution founded in 1794. By signing her assignments as "Monsieur Le Blanc," Germain would submit answers to Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who was famous for his work in number theory, and classical and celestial mechanics. When Germain and Lagrange finally met, her identity was revealed, and he became her mentor and friend - her first breakthrough into this wholly male world.

Early in her career, Sophie Germain made an important breakthrough on Fermat's Last Theorem. Many people are familiar with a related concept, Pythagoras' theorem: x2 + y2 = z2 . In his theorem, Pierre de Fermat posited that there were no known solutions to the following equations, but claimed that a proof existed even though he never wrote it down:

x3 + y3 = z3

x4 +y4 = z4

x5 + y5 = z5

x6 + y6 = z6




xn + yn = zn

Germain, while still in her twenties and operating under her pseudonym, shared her ideas about Fermat's Last Theorem with Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of all time. Germain focused on all the equations in which n is a prime number. Specifically, she was interested in all prime numbers p in which 2p + 1 is also a prime number (i.e., 2, 3, 5, 11, 23, 29, 41, 53, 83, 89, 113, 131). She also showed that for values of n equal to these Germain primes, there were "probably" no solutions to the equation: xn + yn = zn. Germain's work is considered to be her greatest contribution; however, she would have never received credit if it weren't for her identity being revealed to Gauss at a later date.

Later in life, Sophie Germain began a career in physics and made significant contributions to the studies of the elasticity of metals and acoustics. Her paper entitled "Memoir on the Vibrations of Elastic Plates" laid the foundation for modern elasticity theory.



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Join Date: Mar 2005
Posts: 3506
Good Answers: 32

Re: Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776 – June 27, 1831)

05/29/2007 4:23 PM

It's time to inscribe her name on the Eiffel Tower, or at least give her some credit on the tower's Official Web Site. Will anyone join me in contacting these folks to lobby on Sophie Germain's behalf? If so, click this link to register your opinion - and let them know that you learned about her on CR4.


Join Date: Apr 2007
Posts: 415
Good Answers: 19

Re: Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776 – June 27, 1831)

05/30/2007 6:53 AM

Thanks for the reminder. Sophie Germain gets a very brief article in my 2nd. edition Columbia Encyclopedia (1950) so her true identity has been known for a while. This page also showed up,

evidently part of a series sponsored by the University of Houston. Sex isn't the only insulator from fame. Marie Curie's name was well-known fifty years ago; not one person in a thousand had even heard of Sophie Germain. Of course, these days not one in a thousand has heard of Gauss or LaGrange.


Join Date: Dec 2007
Posts: 1

Re: Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776 – June 27, 1831)

12/23/2007 1:14 AM

I have just read about the Germain/Lagrange relationship today, but surprisingly (to me at least) I am in the middle of writing a book whose two main characters are a 20-something female math student and her 60-something male math professor and mentor. I intend to use the Germain/Lagrange story in my book, but I fear that readers will think that I stole the characters... but I swear I didn't!

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