Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia - Scientist, Writer, RevolutionaryA Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia - Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary by Ann Hibner Koblitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"To the best of our present knowledge, Kovalevskaia was the finest woman scientist anywhere in the world before the twentieth century."

Ann Hibner Koblitz's A Convergence of Lives (1983) reads in part as a research monograph, in part as a traditional biography, but also a little like a captivating historical romance. The subtitle of the book - Sofia Kovalevskaia: Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary - clarifies the flowery title, even if it is misleading: mathematics is not really a science. Dr. Koblitz's book will be interesting for many readers: for mathematicians and historians of mathematics, for people interested in the 19th century European history, and for all readers who are into biographies and roman historique.

Dr. Koblitz's work is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of feminist ideas: the book shows the pioneering and influential role played by Kovalevskaia in assuring women the same rights as men in all aspects of life, including in academia, in the traditionally male-dominated fields of human knowledge. Sofia Kovalevskaia demonstrated she could achieve as much as the most prominent male mathematicians of the 19th century. In addition to doing brilliant math she also successfully stormed the job world of academia, when in 1874 she obtained a doctorate, as the first woman in the modern times, and then in 1883 when she secured, as the only woman in Europe, a teaching position at the University of Stockholm (the next woman to hold such job was Maria Skłodowska-Curie, 23 years later).

Sofia Kovalevskaia's interest in mathematics dates back to her childhood, but what got her hooked on math were not the usual arithmetic or basics of algebra but rather more advanced math ideas, such as the concept of asymptotes or "squaring of a circle." In one of the most unusual real-life coincidences the nursery room of Kovalevskaia's house during her childhood was wallpapered with her father's notes from differential and integral calculus lectures. No wonder then that some of her first interests were the actual calculus problems. Among famous professors she learned from and then collaborated with was Karl Weierstrass, one of the most renowned figures in the history of mathematics. She also had numerous contacts with the eminent Russian mathematician, Chebyshev.

The biography is solid on the social and political background of the great mathematician's life. Introduction will be useful for many readers as it presents the socio-economic conditions prevalent in Russia in the second half of the 19th century, and in particular explains the "nihilist movement" whose name and goals may be radically misunderstood in modern days. Having come of age in the 1960s I feel strong kinship with children of the other turbulent sixties - 1860s.

In the social arena during mid-to-late-19th century the reader may find interesting the Russian concept of "fictitious marriages": these were unions of convenience, real only in the legal sense, allowing young women to leave the country to study abroad. Such was Sofia Kovalevskaia marriage, although in her case the union was indeed consummated several years later.

Readers will be interested in Sofia Kovalevskaia's contacts with Fyodor Dostoyevsky: in fact at one point she might have developed a youthful crush on him while her sister was close to being engaged with the writer. Sofia herself was a successful writer, playwright, and a poet: her literary output includes a memoir, a partly autobiographical novel, and several plays and essays.

Convergence is meticulously referenced. Up to one-fourth of each page is dedicated for footnotes that specify the sources of various items of information. The almost 20-page bibliography is impressive and from the Introduction we learn that the author spent a lot of time working in Russian (at the time they were in fact Soviet) archives.

In sum, a worthwhile, interesting, readable yet solid book, highly recommended. Of course being a mathematician I may be a little biased in my enthusiasm. In fact I am right now teaching the partial differential equations course and will soon lecture on the famous Cauchy-Kovalevskaia theorem.

Four stars.

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