Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16
Sophie Germain was a French physicist and philosopher who made significant contributions to the study of elasticity. Germain’s father was a wealthy Paris merchant and, on the fall of the Bastille in 1789, when she was 13, Sophie was forced to stay inside due to the dangerous atmosphere on the streets of Paris. She occupied herself by reading in her father’s library and developed an interest in mathematics. It is reported that she became so absorbed in her reading that servants had to remind her to eat. Her parents sought to discourage her academic obsession. Sophie would often continue to work through the night so her concerned parents extinguished her candle and removed her clothes, forcing her to go to bed. Undaunted, Sophie continued to work, even when the ink in her inkwell froze.
The École Polytechnique was founded when Sophie turned 18. It would go on to become a world leading university but Sophie’s sex prevented her from studying at the institution. Undeterred, she acquired lecture notes from the professors. She sent her work to the mathematician, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, under the assumed name Monsieur Antione-August Le Blanc. Lagrange was so impressed with the quality of ‘Le Blanc’s’ work he sought out the mysterious correspondent and offered Germain encouragement, becoming her mentor. She also corresponded with Carl Friedrich Gauss, admitting to him that she feared “the ridicule attached to a female scientist”.
Germain became interested in a competition set up by the Paris Academy of Sciences to develop a mathematical model of the vibrations of elastic surfaces, such as those observed by Ernst Chladni in his famous experiment.
Perhaps because Lagrange had stated that the solution to the elasticity problem would require the development of new mathematics, only Germain and Poisson entered the competition. When Poisson was elected to the Academy, the rules of the competition made him ineligible, freeing Germain to work on the problem without a competitor. After three years of work, she submitted her paper for the prize but the judges felt her solution, whilst ingenious, did not establish the ‘true movement’ of the plate. After the failure to find a winner in the first round, the competition extended for two years but Germain’s second entry, submitted anonymously, contained errors, and the competition was extended again. She submitted her third attempt in 1816, seven years after beginning to work on the problem, this time under her own name. Her work won the prize and she became the first woman to be given an award by the Paris Academy.
Despite winning their prize, Germain remained excluded from lectures at the academy because the only women allowed to attend were the wives of members. Years later, she befriended Fourier, who had become secretary of the Academy, and he allowed her to attend sessions. A fitting memorial for her brilliance and determination was the foundation of the Sophie Germain Prize, conferred by the Paris Academy of Sciences to mathematicians.