Friday, March 31, 2006

Exception to the Rule

I once heard a representative of the Center for Disease Control say: "The question is not 'Why are so many people sick?' The question is, 'Why isn't everyone sick?'" If everyone's exposed to roughly the same environmental influences, why are some people not affected. I think this applies to social norms as well as physiological diseases.

Nova's program about Sophie Germain describes her pursuit of math in the 18th century when women were discouraged or prevented from intellectual pursuit of any kind. The story of how her father confiscated her candles to prevent her from studying doesn't surprise me. Nor does the fact that she assumed a man's identity in order to study at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. What does surprise me is that when her mentor discovered her real identity, he was pleased and continued to teach her.

When Germaine reached a partial solution to Fermat's theorem, she contacted famous mathematician, Carl Fredrich Gauss, again using the male identity she had used to start at Ecole Polytechnique. When her real identity was revealed Gauss wrote to her:
But how to describe to you my admiration and astonishment at seeing my esteemed correspondent Monsieur Le Blanc metamorphose himself into this illustrious personage who gives such a brilliant example of what I would find it difficult to believe. A taste for the abstract sciences in general and above all the mysteries of numbers is excessively rare: one is not astonished at it: the enchanting charms of this sublime science reveal only to those who have the courage to go deeply into it. But when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudices, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarize herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius.

It should be noted that the two most intellectual and well educated men in her life were the ones to accept her and her work.


Pam in Tucson said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. I'll have to explore further into the life of Sophie Germain. It's interesting that both Lagrange and Gauss were willing to acknowledge the genius and accept the gender. Even as late as the early 60's, I battled for equality of work assignments as the sole female engineer in my company, and prior to that struggled as the sole female in my math. and astronomy classes. Interestingly enough, it was my peers, not my supervisors or professors, who had trouble accepting my gender. Nowadays, I read Sheila Tobias and others who encourage women to enter the world of science and math.

Mary Ann said...

I had forgotten about being the only woman in the astronomy class. I drifted away from math in undergraduate school. So, I ended up in Labor Relations at Cornell, where there were five women (out of 110 grad students). It wasn't that much of an improvement.

By the way, I'm a handweaver, too. I wonder if that's a math related thing?

Tina said...

I'm the second wave of feminists - and only peripherally in the mathematic arena. I'm a liberal arts major with a math minor, which made me a pretty strange duck indeed. It means that I can actually talk to geeks and understand them.

I used to do a lot of work with a group of women heavily involved in maintaining data standards for the financial industry. They were running an informal survey and it turns out that every single one of them either played a musical instrument (or two or three) or spoke a foreign language.

Is that the same part of the brain? Mary Ann's comment made me think about that.

I'm a quilter - which involves piecing various geometric pieces together. Lots of good math.

EmmaBlue said...

I would imagine that its the same part of the brain...I did my degree in languages and music, and almost did a maths degree (and am thinking about doing one later on in life) They all seem pretty related to me.