Sophie Germain

‘It matters little who first arrives at an idea, rather what is significant is how far that idea can go’

Sophie Germain was a French mathematician and philosopher. She never got a formal education, but she read widely in her father’s library and then later, using the pseudonym of M. Le Blanc, managed to obtain lecture notes for courses from the newly organized École Polytechnique in Paris. This is how she met the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who remained a strong source of support and encouragement to her for several years. Germain’s early work was in number theory, a subject which occupied her throughout her life. In 1804 she initiated a correspondence with Gauss under her male pseudonym. She was also interested in elasticity and this is how she decided to take part in a contest initiated by the Paris Academy of Science for a mathematical account of the phenomena exhibited in experiments on vibrating plates. After two failed attempts in 1811 and 1813, she finally won the prize in 1816 and thus established herself as a mathematician. Her other contribution is in the spheres of philosophy and sociology,and her work of classifying facts and generalizing them as laws was influential for later thinkers, such as Auguste Comte, in setting the scientific grounds of sociology. She died at the age of 55 after being diagnosed with breast cancer and an honorary degree by the university of Gottingen was conferred upon her, six years after her death.