Sofia Kovalevskaya – Two Biographies

An extraordinary woman, Sofia Kovalevskaya (also known as Sonia Kovalevsky) was not only a great mathematician, but also a writer and advocate of women's rights in the 19th century. It was her struggle to obtain the best education available which began to open doors at universities to women. In addition, her ground-breaking work in mathematics made her male counterparts reconsider their archaic notions of women's inferiority to men in such scientific arenas.

Sofia Krukovsky Kovalevskaya was born in 1850. As the child of a Russian family of minor nobility, Sofia was raised in plush surroundings. She was not a typically happy child, though. She felt very neglected as the middle child in the family of a well admired, first-born daughter, Anya, and of the younger male heir, Fedya. For much of her childhood she was also under the care of a very strict governess who made it her personal duty to turn Sofia into a young lady. As a result, Sofia became fairly nervous and withdrawn--traits which were evident throughout her lifetime (Perl 127-128).

Sofia's exposure to mathematics began at a very young age. She claims to have studied her father's old calculus notes that were papered on her nursery wall in replacement for a shortage of wallpaper. Sofia credits her uncle Peter for first sparking her curiosity in mathematics. He took an interest in Sofia and made time to discuss numerous abstractions and mathematical concepts with her (Rappaport 564). When she was fourteen years old she taught herself trigonometry in order to understand the optics section of a physics book that she was reading. The author of the book and also her neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, was extremely impressed with her capabilities and convinced her father to allow her to go off to school in St. Petersburg to continue her studies (Rappaport 564). ...

Sofia Kovalevskaya was the middle child of Vasily Korvin-Krukovsky, an artillery general, and Yelizaveta Shubert, both well-educated members of the Russian nobility. Sofia was educated by tutors and governesses first at Polibino, the Krukovsky family country estate, near Pskov, then in St. Petersburg. She joined her family's social circle which included Dostoevsky (who even proposed to her elder sister Anna, but was rejected).

Sofia was attracted to mathematics at a very young age. Her uncle Pyotr Krukovsky was not the brightest or most educated man, but he had a passion for mathematics and told Sofia about squaring a circle and asymptotes, even before she was old enough to know what these words meant.

When Sofia was 11 years old, the walls of her nursery were temporarily (for a shortage of wallpaper) papered with pages of Ostrogradsky's lecture notes on differential and integral analysis from her father's university days. She noticed that certain things on the sheets she had heard mentioned by her uncle.

It was under the family's tutor Josef Malevich that Sofia undertook her first proper study of mathematics, and she says that it was as his pupil that she began to feel an attraction for mathematics so intense that she started to neglect other studies.

Sofia’s father decided to put a stop to her math lessons, but she borrowed a copy of Bourdeu's Algebra, which she read at night when the rest of the household was asleep. A year later a neighbour, Professor Tyrtov, presented her family with a physics textbook which he had written, and Sofia attempted to read it.

She did not understand the trigonometric formulae and attempted to explain them herself. Tyrtov realised that in her working with the concept of sine, she had used the same method by which it had developed historically. Tyrtov argued with Sofia's father that she should be encouraged to study mathematics further but it was several years later that he permitted Sofia to take private lessons. ...


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