The first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1816
Marie-Sophie Germain was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. Despite initial opposition from her parents and difficulties presented by society, she gained education from books in her father’s library, including ones by Leonhard Euler, and from correspondence with famous mathematicians such as Lagrange, Legendre, and Gauss.
Sophie is one of the pioneers of elasticity theory. Her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem provided a foundation for mathematicians exploring the subject for hundreds of years after.
Because of prejudice against her sex, she was unable to make a career out of mathematics, but she worked independently throughout her life.
Before her death, Gauss recommend that she be award an honorary degree, however, that never occurred. On June 27, 1831, she died from breast cancer at the age of 55 in Paris, France. At the centenary of her life, a street and a girls’ school name after her. The Academy of Sciences established the Sophie Germain Prize in her honor.
She was born April 1, 1776, in Paris, France, in a house on Rue Saint-Denis.
Work in elasticity
When Germain’s correspondence with Gauss ceased. She took interest in a contest sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences concerning Ernst Chladni’s experiments with vibrating metal plates.
In 1809 Germain began work. Legendre assisted by giving her equations, references, and current research. She submitted her paper early in the fall of 1811 and did not win the prize. The judging commission felt that “the true equations of the movement were not established”. Even though “the experiments presented ingenious results”. Lagrange was able to use Germain’s work to derive an equation that was “correct under special assumptions”.
The contest extended by two years, and Germain decided to try again for the prize. At first, Legendre continued to offer support, but then he refused all help. Germain’s anonymous 1813 submission was still littered with mathematical errors, especially involving double integrals, and it received only an honorable mention because “the fundamental base of the theory [of elastic surfaces] was not established”.
The contest extended once more, and Germain began work on her third attempt. This time she consulted with Poisson. In 1814 he published his own work on elasticity and did not acknowledge Germain’s help.
Germain submitted her third paper, “Recherches Sur la théorie des surfaces élastiques” under her own name. On 8 January 1816, she became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences. She did not appear at the ceremony to receive her award. Although Germain had at last been awarded the Prix extraordinaire, the Academy was still not fully satisfied.
After winning the Academy contest, she was still not able to attend its sessions. Because of the Academy’s tradition of excluding women other than the wives of members. Seven years later this situation transform when she made friends with Joseph Fourier, a secretary of the Academy, who obtained tickets to the sessions for her.
Sophie Germain Prize
The Sophie Germain Prize (French: Prix Sophie Germain), the award annually by the Foundation Sophie Germain, is conferred by the Academy of Sciences in Paris. Its purpose is to honour a French mathematician for research in the foundations of mathematics. This award, in the amount of €8,000, establishes in 2003, under the auspices of the Institut de France.