Sofia Kovalevskaya

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Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (Russian: Со́фья Васи́льевна Ковале́вская) (15 January [O.S. 3 January] 1850 – 10 February [O.S. 29 January] 1891), was the first major Russian female mathematician, responsible for important original contributions to analysis, differential equations and mechanics, and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe.

There are some alternative transliterations of her name. She herself used Sophie Kowalevski (or occasionally Kowalevsky), for her academic publications. After moving to Sweden, she called herself Sonya.


Early years

Sofia Kovalevskaya (née Korvin-Krukovskaya), was born in Moscow, the second of three children. Her father, Vasily Vasilyevich Korvin-Krukovsky, was Lieutenant-General of Artillery who served in the Imperial Russian Army. Her mother, Yelizaveta Fedorovna Schubert, was a scholarly woman of German ancestry and Sofia's grandmother was Romani.[1] They nurtured her interest in mathematics and hired a tutor, (A. N. Strannoliubskii , a well-known advocate of higher education for women) who taught her calculus. During that same period, the son of the local priest introduced her to nihilism.[2]

Despite her obvious talent for mathematics, she could not complete her education in Russia. At that time, women there were not allowed to attend universities. In order to study abroad, she needed written permission from her father (or husband). Accordingly, she contracted a "fictitious marriage" with Vladimir Kovalevsky, then a young paleontology student who would later become famous for his collaboration with Charles Darwin. They emigrated from Russia in 1867 [3].

Student Years

In 1869, Kovalevskaya began attending the University of Heidelberg, Germany, which allowed her to audit classes as long as the professors involved gave their approval. Shortly after beginning her studies there, she visited London with Vladimir, who spent time with his colleagues Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, while she was invited to attend George Eliot's Sunday salons [3]. There, at age nineteen, she met Herbert Spencer and was led into a debate, at Eliot's instigation, on "woman's capacity for abstract thought". This was well before she made her notable contribution of the "Kovalevsky top" to the brief list of known examples of integrable rigid body motion (see following section). George Eliot was writing Middlemarch at the time, in which one finds the remarkable sentence: "In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could hardly be less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid."[4]

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