Sofía Kovalevskaya

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Biography of Sofia Kovalevskaya, brilliant Russian mathematician, the first woman to get a place as a university professor in Europe, specifically in Sweden.

Sofia Kovalevskaya family facts

Sofia Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow on January 15, 1850. Her grandfather was a descendant of one of the kings of Hungary. When marrying a gypsy woman, she lost the title of prince, which was due to her by family inheritance.

Sofia’s father, Vasili Krukovski, an artillery general, was of Polish descent. Her mother Elizaveta Shubert, daughter of the German-born astronomer Fyodor Fyodorovitch Schubert, was originally from Belarus.

In 1858, when Sofia was already eight years old, her parents went to live in the town of Palibino, in Belarus.

Belarus is now called the Republic of Belarus. The capital is Minsk. Credit: web maps of the world

In the Kovalevski home, a cultural atmosphere reigned that permeated the life of the entire family: parents, uncles, children. Both parents belonged to the Russian nobility and frequented the intellectual environments.

This influenced Sofia and she gave herself with pleasure to reading and theater. In particular, one of her uncles who was a mathematician taught her the rudiments of mathematics and science.

Studies and youth of Sofia Kovalevskaya

Sofia had two brothers: Aniuta, who was six years older than Sofia; the younger brother, Fedia, was three years younger than Sofia.

Sofia’s brothers had a tutor who, among other disciplines, gave Mathematics to Fedia the male brother. Admired by the intelligence and interest of Sofia, this man began to impart to her also the first notions of arithmetic and algebra.

When her father found out about this, he ordered to interrupt his daughter’s math classes, since he did not want to have a kleine weise frau at home.

Sofia continued to study math on her own and read algebra books at night when the rest of the family slept.

A neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, showed the Krukovski family a book that he had published. Sofia tried to read it and analyzed for herself what the trigonometric concept of sine of an angle was.

The teacher thus discovered Sofia’s exceptional powers, and convinced her father to authorize her daughter to study. Finally Mr. Krukovski agreed, and Sofia began to receive private lessons.

Marriage and studies of Sofia Kovalevskaya

Given the impossibility of being able to enroll in a Russian university, Sofia’s alternative was to go study in Vienna or some other university in Germany or France.

The problem was that single women were NOT given a passport in Russia. Incredible but true.

Sofia was not afraid of anything and decided to solve this setback by contracting a marriage of convenience with a young paleontologist, named Vladimir Kovalevski. Together they traveled to Vienna, and Sofia was renamed Sofía Kovalevskaya.

Soon after, in 1869, she enrolled at the University of Heidelberg.

Her new teachers advised her to go to Berlin where she could take classes from Karl Weierstrass, privately because in that city the academic training of women was not allowed.

Karl Weierstrass
Karl Weierstrass, German mathematician, one of the fathers of modern analysis. Credit: Wikipedia

Karl Weierstrass delightedly accepted this new student, so well endowed for mathematics.

At the same time as studying, Sofia Kovalevski began to prepare her doctoral work.

When the Paris Commune broke out (1871) Sofia went there with her husband to be with her sister Anna.

In November 1872, the Kovalevski couple returned to Berlin, where Sophia resumed her research to write three theses: two memoirs on mathematics and one on astronomy, in which she explained the shape of Saturn’s rings.

From her work on equations with partial derivatives, what later became known as the “Cauchy-Kovalevski Theorem” resulted.

The cunning Weierstrass had sought Sofia a university that would accept a woman’s doctorate. And she chose the University of Göttingen for this.

Gotingen University
The University of Gottingen has the title of University of Excellence. Credit: Wikipedia

With these three theses, Sofia Kovalevskaya earned the honorable title of “doctor summa cum laude” at the University of Göttingen in 1874. She was the first woman to obtain this degree not only in Germany, but in the world.

However, in that year and in that university a machismo that still shames us still ruled: this brilliant and talented woman was awarded the title on condition that she did not pass the oral exam.

After this triumph of her intelligence and her work, Sofia Kovalevskaya went with her husband to England. Once there, Vladimir Kovalevski worked as a translator from Charles Darwin into Russian.

Sofia Kovalevskaya and her husband returned to Russia

In 1878, the Kovalevski couple decided to return to Russia. It was not a good decision for Sofía because there in her homeland her title was not validated and, consequently, she found no way to exercise her profession of mathematics.

Vladimir Kovalevski was able to do some Russian translations, but he was ruined because of some business he had started. On October 17, 1878, their daughter Sofia was born.

Two years later, the three of them moved to Moscow, to escape creditors.

Sofia Kovalevskaya was still interested in mathematics, and decided to travel to Berlin for two months to update herself and connect with recent research.

In March 1881, Sofia moved to Paris with her young daughter and left her husband in Moscow, who had been ruined by bad business.

In Paris, Sofia alternated with the most important French mathematicians; in July 1882 she was accepted into the “Mathematical Society of Paris”.

Sofia Kovalevskaya moved to Sweden in 1884

Thanks to Gustav Mittag-Leffler, a former Weierstrass student, Sofia was able to work on probation for a year at Stockholm University in 1884 as a Privatdozent.

Gustav Mittag
Gustav Mittag-Leffler, prestigious Swedish mathematician (1846-1927) admirer of Sofia Kovalevskaya. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Sofia Kovalevskaya was also a good writer and actively participated in the writing of the Acta Mathematica magazine, founded by Gustav Mittag-Leffler.

In Stockholm, with the firm support of Professor Mittag-Leffler, she was able to start a new life with classes, trips and conferences; above all, focused on what her passion was: mathematical research.

At this time, Sofia Kovalevskaya worked on providing a solution to the problem of “rotating a solid body around a fixed point“. More than 30 years had passed, since the Berlin Academy of Sciences had proposed an award to whoever found the solution.

Sofia Kovalevskaya found an original solution. In addition to the Berlin Prize, she received the “Bordin Prize of the Paris Academy of Sciences” (in 1888), and the “Prize of the Stockholm Academy of Sciences”, in 1889.

The solution Sofia Kovalevskaya found is known as the “Kovalevskaya spinning top”.

In addition, the University of Stockholm awarded her a permanent teaching position.

Death of Sofia Kovalevskaya

This great mathematician died of pneumonia on February 10, 1891, when she was just 41 years old.

Honors awarded to Sofia Kovalevskaya

  • The AWM, “Women’s Mathematics Association”, which promotes the funding of workshops in the United States to encourage girls to explore mathematics, established “Sofia Kovalevsky Day” in high schools in the United States.
  • AWM also sponsors a program called “The Sofia Kovalevsky Conference”, to highlight each year the significant contributions of women in the fields of applied or computational mathematics.
  • The Kovalevskaya lunar crater received this name in honor of Sofia.
  • The asteroid (1859) Kovalevskaya, 46 km in diameter, is named after her.
  • Every two years, the “Alexander von Humboldt Foundation” in Germany awards the Sofia Kovalevskaya Prize to promising young researchers from all fields.

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