Sonya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya – Mathematician and Female Rights Fighter
Sonya Kovalevskaya was an excellent mathematician, writer and one of the greatest female rights fighters in the 19th century.
Her struggle for the acquisition of the best possible education was a driving force that would enable women to attend university studies as equal students. In addition, her great achievements in mathematics encouraged her male colleagues to reconsider their perceptions of female inferiority in relation to men in scientific fields.
Sonya was born in 1850 in the Russian noble family and grew up surrounded by luxury. However, she was not a very happy child. She felt a neglected, middle-aged, besides her elderly very beloved sister and her younger brother. For most of her childhood she had a very strict governess who understood Sonya’s education as a lady’s mission as her own. As a consequence, Sonya became quite nervous and withdrawn that followed her whole life.
She discovered mathematics as very young. She claims that she carefully examined her father’s notes that stood on the wall of her room instead of the wallpaper. Also, she believes that her uncle Peter, who spent much of her time discussing her with certain mathematical concepts, was the “most guilty” of her love for mathematics. When she was 14, she taught herself trigonometry to be able to grasp the chapter on optics in a book from the physics she read at that time. The author of this book and her neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, was impressed by her abilities and persuaded Sonia’s father to allow her to go to St. Petersburg to continue her education.
Upon completion of high school, Sonja firmly decided to continue her university education. However, the closest university open to women was in Switzerland, and at that time young, unmarried women were not allowed to travel alone. In order to solve this problem, Sonja married in September 1868 for Vladimir Kovalevsky. In the first few months of their marriage they spent in Saint Petersburg and then went to Heidelberg where Sonya first attracted attention. Everyone was an interesting quiet young Russian with an outstanding academic reputation.
In 1870, Sonja decided to continue her studies with Karl Weißstrasse at the University of Berlin. Weierstrass was already considered the most eminent mathematician of his time, but initially he did not take Sonja seriously. She gave her a couple of problems to solve, and only after looking at her work she discovered what sort of genius she was standing before him. Immediately began to teach her privately because the university did not allow women to study at the time. Sonja studied with him for 4 years. On one occasion, she said: “Those years had the greatest possible impact on my career as a mathematician. Then I finally and irrevocably decided which direction I will follow in my work: all my work will be in the spirit of Wienerstrasse.” At the end of those four years, she had already had three jobs for her, which she hoped would bring her a degree. One of them, “On Partial Differential Equations,” was published in Crelle magazine, which was a great honor for an unknown mathematician.
In June 1874, Sonja Kovaljevska received a doctorate from the University of Göttingen (Göttingen). Despite this prestigious title and Weirstrasse’s help, she failed to find a job. She and Vladimir returned to Palobino, Sonya’s family. Soon after her return home her father died. After Father’s death Sonja and Vladimir finally fell in love. From this love one daughter was born. During her stay at home Sonja completely ignored mathematics. Instead, she tasted in literature, writing stories, theater critics and scientific articles for the newspaper.
Sonja returned to mathematics in 1880 with a new heartbeat. At one conference, she exposed the work on integrals that was very well received. She again found himself in a position to look for a job in the field she loved most – mathematics. Not long after her arrival in Berlin, she found out about Vladimir’s death. He committed suicide when his job broke down. The grief made it work more than ever.
Finally, in 1883, she received an invitation to teach at the University of Stockholm from Weißstrasse’sformer student Goth Mitag – Lefler. At first, it was only temporary employment, but five years of work was enough for the administration of the University to understand how important Sonja was. A period of great success followed. She got permanent employment at the University, became the editor of a mathematical journal, wrote her first work on crystals, and in 1885, she became head of the Department of Mathematics. In the meantime, with her friend Anne Lefler, she wrote the theater play “Fight for Happiness”.
Sonya again received horrifying news in 1887. The death of her sister, Anita, was especially difficult given the two of them were very close. Fortunately, shortly thereafter, her greatest triumph came, when in 1888 she handed over the work “On the rotation of a rigid body around a fixed point” to a competition for the Bordin Prize of the French Academy of Sciences and won. “Before Sophia Kovalevskaya only cases of rotation of a symmetrical body were considered” (Rapaport). In her work, Sonya developed a theory of the rotation of an asymmetric rigid body with a center of mass not on the axis of rotation. The work was so successful that the 3000 prize was increased to 5000 francs.
About the same time, another man walked into Sonya’s life. Maximus Kovalevsky came to Stockholm to hold a series of lectures. He met Sonya here and they had a burning relationship. The main problem was that they were both terribly tied to their work and did not want to leave it because of the other. He took the work of Maximus from Stockholm and he wanted Sonja to leave his difficult position to become his wife. Sonya did not like that, but she could not stand losing him. She stayed in France during the flight with him and went into another state of depression. She turned to writing again and, by the end of her stay in France, she finished “Memories of Childhood”.
In autumn 1889, she returned to Stockholm. She was still sad about Maximus, although she often traveled to France to see him. As a consequence of all of this, she became ill with pneumonia and depression. On February 10, 1891, Sonya died. The entire scientific world reacted with grief to the news. During her career, Sonja published ten papers in mathematics and mathematics and several literary works. Much of her scientific papers contained fundamental theories or opened the door to future discoveries. The president of the French Academy of Sciences, who presented Sonya with the Bordin Award, once said: “Our members believe that her work testifies not only about deep and wide education, but also about the mind of incredible inventiveness.”