Sofia Kovalevski, the first doctor in mathematics – 09/12/2023 – Marcelo Viana

Sofia Kovalevski, the first doctor in mathematics – 09/12/2023 – Marcelo Viana

The origin of his love for mathematics is the most unusual and fortuitous one I know: when he was a teenager, the walls of his room were for a time covered with pages from the Ostrogradsky calculus book that his father had used at school. In them, young Sofia (1850–1891) learned the rudiments of derivation and integration.

But 19th century Russia did not offer women space for a scientific education, and the family did not look kindly on Sofia and her friends’ ideas about female emancipation. So she took the only path available: at the age of 18, she entered into a sham marriage with the young paleontologist Vladimir Kovalevski. The following year, they traveled to Heidelberg, where he studied geology and she took classes with scientists such as G. Kirchoff and H. von Helmholtz.

In 1871, when Vladimir went to do his doctorate in Jena, Sofia moved to Berlin, where, for four years, she studied under the guidance of the greatest mathematician of her time: Karl Weierstrass. During this period, she wrote three excellent scientific works, which formed her doctoral thesis, the first defended by a woman.

His most important result, known as the Cauchy–Kovalevski theorem (the Frenchman A. Cauchy proved a particular case, Kovalevski obtained the general case), is to this day a cornerstone of the theory of differential equations.

Despite her doctorate, and Weierstrass’s emphatic letters of support, Sofia was unable to get a job anywhere in Europe. In 1874, she met Vladimir in Russia and, we don’t know why, they began to live as a de facto couple. Their only daughter, Fufa, was born in 1878.

However, Vladimir was also unable to get a job at the university, due to his radical political ideas, and, naively, he ended up getting involved in risky business. In 1883, ruined and at risk of being prosecuted for fraud, he committed suicide.

That same year, with the help of Swedish mathematician G. Mittag-Leffler, Sofia finally obtained a university teaching position in Stockholm, where she did some of her most important research.

In 1888, she won the Bordin Prize, from the French Academy of Sciences, with the article “The rotation of a solid body”: the evaluators were so impressed with her work that they increased the value of the prize from 3,000 to 5,000 francs!

The following year, she was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences. She died less than two years later, a victim of pneumonia.

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