Home > math, women in math > Today is Sonia Kovalevsky Day

Today is Sonia Kovalevsky Day

March 23, 2012

Sometimes I imagine what my life would have been life if I’d been born way earlier, like in 1850. Knowing how difficult it was back then to be a female mathematician, and not wanting to assume some special property like I was born royalty or otherwise incredibly rich, I usually settle on something like a farmer’s life, with 7 kids and a butter churn, Little-House-on-the-Prairie style. To satisfy my nerdy urges I imagine myself knitting difficult patterns and formally organizing the community’s crop rotations.

I really don’t have much insight into what it must have been like back then, but even a short thought experiment like this helps me appreciate the story of Sofia Kovalevskaya, who was indeed born in Moscow in 1850 and unbelievably contributed majorly to mathematics, even though (hat tip Robert Lipshitz):

  1. it was illegal to go to university in Russia at the time so she had a faux marriage in order to get permission from her husband to go abroad to study,
  2. got a Ph.D. in Berlin studying under some famous men (Helmholtz, Kirchhoff and Bunsen in Heidelberg, Weirstrass), becoming the first woman in Europe to ever get hold the degree,
  3. after which time nobody in Germany would let her work so she did various jobs including installing streetlamps,
  4. and finally managed to get some kind of weird position in Sweden (here‘s a more complete bio).

Did I mention that she eventually had a kid with her husband and then died at the age of 41 from the flu?

I’d really love to go back in time for a day, find Sweden, and buy that amazing woman a drink (and I’d try to arrange to slip some antibiotics into said drink).

Today we are celebrating Sonia at Barnard College (here’s the schedule), where for the nth time (where n is at least 5) we’re having a Sonia Kovalevsky Day with a crowd of young women mathematicians, 9th graders from the Urban Assembly Institute of Math & Science for Young Women, will come and enjoy math talks from Barnard and Columbia professors and then engage in a team competition (with their teachers, which is my favorite part) to see who will win incredibly small prizes but for which they will all scream their heads off for 2 hours. It’s fun!

I started this tradition when I was a Barnard math professor back in 2006 with my friend Kiri Soares who runs the UA Institute, and that fact that it’s still going makes me very happy. Every time I go I try to teach the students how to solve the Rubiks cube using a few tricks which stem from group theory. It’s fun to do and they all get to take home their cubes, along with other math toys and goodies. Mmmm… math toys.

Categories: math, women in math
  1. March 23, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Prof Mark Kac, of Feynman-Kac and other fames, at Rockefeller University in the late 70s (1970s), had an AMS poster of her outside his office. I once commented to him on her lookds and he said “Yes, she was the best looking mathematician of either sex.”

    I think it’s Sonia Kovalevskaya, maybe


  2. K
    March 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    “find Switzerland”… This Swede is not amused if that was a joke, and is appalled if it was not.


    • March 23, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      Sorry, an earlier version of this got them messed up and I only fixed it in one spot. Now they’re both fixed.


  3. March 23, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Today is Emmy Noether’s birthday.


  4. April 4, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Every time you try to cure flu with antibiotics, god kills kitten (with MRSA).


  5. March 24, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Sonja was not permitted to hear Weierstrass’ lectures in the hall, she had to take notes hiding in back of the lecture stage. Only Sweden would give her a math professorship, even after winning international math prizes.


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