Sonya Kovalevsky was born on January 15, 1850 in Moscow, Russia. She grew up in a very intellectual family. Her father was a military officer and a landholder; her mother was the granddaughter of a famous Russian astronomer and an accomplished musician. She grew up living a lavish life, and was first educated by her uncle, who read her fairy tales, taught her chess, and talked about mathematics. She even bumped into the subject of trigonometry while studying elementary physics. She achieved all of this by the age of thirteen.
At age 15 she had studied the topics of mathematics, literature, medicine, and physics. She wanted to excel mainly in literature and mathematics and pursue college career. But ever since 1863, Russian universities had been closed to women. If you were an unmarried Russian woman at this time, you were not allowed to travel freely. Sonya wanted to study mathematics abroad, but her father would not let her. His extent was to allow her to study calculus under a private tutor at the naval school of St.
Petersburg. Because she could not pursue her dreams as planned, she organized for a “platonic” marriage, which was basically for intellectual convenience. When Sonya was 18, she married Vladimir Kovalevsky, and brought her sister to move with them, again, for intellectual purposes. To her disappointment, Sonya realized she couldn’t pursue every part of her educational career, so she stayed with her first love, mathematics. Her husband, Vladimir, went on to study paleontology and left her. She had many struggles trying to receive higher education because of the restrictions women had when it came to furthering ones education.
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But after many attempts, she was able to study with the great German mathematician Karl Weierstrass. She worked with him for the next four years and then in 1874, received her doctorate. By this time, she had published numerous original papers in the field of higher mathematical analysis and applications to astronomy and physics. But despite all her attempts, and brilliance, she was still a woman in her time period, and therefore unable to find a job in academia.
Weierstrass had tried helping her find a job because he was astonished with her abilities and intellectual capacity, but had no luck because after all, she was still a woman. Because she could not find work in the field of mathematics, she tried going into a life as a poet, theatrical critic, novelist, wife and mother. Eventually and slowly, her career started to pick up as she wrote more papers, and theorems. The high point of her career was easily in 1888 when she won the Prix Bord in for her memoir, “On the Problem of the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point.” This prize was a very prestigious prize given by the French Academy of Sciences that was usually given to men, but because of the anonymous entries, now to her as well. Her memoir completely settled a problem whose solution had long eluded mathematicians. Because of this amazing feat, she was given membership in the Russian Academy of Sciences as the first woman elected.
Towards the final years of her life, 1888-1891, she even wrote two novels and several newspaper articles on a large range of topics. She died unexpectedly in 1891 from pneumonia following epidemic influenza. Sonya had accomplished a great deal in her life, but she has also endured a great deal in her life. Her husband, Vladimir had committed suicide in 1883, she was separated from her daughter in her dying years, and her sister was dying a slow and painful death. But she definitely left an impact on Russia, as she was the only woman mathematician to be commemorated with her face on a Russian postage stamp.
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And to top it off, almost one hundred years following her tragic death, Russia had named a crater on the far side of the Moon after her. Sonya is most popular and famous for her work on the rotation of a rigid body about a fixed point, such as a top. Using partial equations, Kovalevsky was able to explore the more of a special type of rigid body. The center of mass for a spinning top is usually in the middle of the top, the part that keeps moving. Sonya was trying to find a way to move the center of gravity at the bottom, to where there is the least to none amount of movement.
Her theory also addresses a system of differential equations of the first order in n variables. In 1750, Euler first derived the equations of motion of a rigid body about a fixed point. Sonya later found her solution by using a series of changes of variable, which allowed her to transform the integrals and equations to a form more suitable for the application of theta functions. Sonya basically did all the work possible on this subject, and her award-winning paper represents the final chapter in the story of closed-form solutions. Her work astounded her contemporaries, and is still of interest to physicists today. She pursued to solve this equation as a favor to Weierstrass.
As a faithful student, she felt she had to “do more than simply say that the integrals could be inverted using theta functions.” She wanted to go through this inversion in detail, and show how to express the parameters, which describe the motions as functions of time. These steps and this process is what had kept her occupied until the competition deadline in 1888. She had achieved what she was going for and even astounded Weierstrass as he wrote to her from Berlin; “your success has gladdened the hearts of myself and my sisters, also of your friends here. I particularly experienced a true satisfaction; competent judges have no delivered their verdict that my ‘faithful pupil’, my ‘weakness’ is indeed not a frivolous humbug.” It is said that Sonya was at the height of both her career and fame in 1891 when she tragically past away. Weierstrass, her loyal friend and teacher took this the worst out of anyone that people even feared for his own life. Sonya’s hard work and achievements split through Europe.
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It has been said by Roger Cooke that Sonya’s career, “Cut an amazingly wide swath through the economic and social structure of her times. It is as if a pioneer went into an uncharted wilderness and built there a complete city with skyscrapers.”.