Redressing the Balance 4: Sofia Kovalevskaya


This is the story of Sofia Kovalevskaya – a Russian mathematician who was the first woman to join the editorial staff of a mathematical journal and to hold a prominent university position in modern Europe.

Sofia Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow in 1850. Mathematics historians say that she became interested in mathematics as a child because her room was decorated with old mathematics lecture notes instead of wallpaper due to shortages.  She was home educated until the age of 19 when she decided to go to university. Whilst the path to university is relatively straightforward today once you have gained A level or equivalent qualifications, for Sofia Kovaleskaya it was a lot more complicated. Many universities did not accept women and in the end she had to enter into a marriage of convenience in order to study at Heidelberg University. She later moved to Berlin but again had to follow a home study course as women were not allowed to attend lectures there.

Eventually, in 1874, Sofia Kovalevskaya was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Gottingen for her work on differential equations without her having attended any classes there. She was also a writer and her novel Nihilist Girl is still published today.

What can we learn from Sofia Kovalevskaya?

Firstly that with the right attitude and approach home education can work even in difficult circumstances. Also if you are trying to learn maths then think about your surroundings. Wall papering your room with mathematical formulae may seem extreme but writing down any facts you need to remember for your GCSE or A level Maths exam and pinning them around the house where you see them often really can help you remember them.  Finally, not all mathematicians are continually obsessed with numbers. My favourite quote from Sofia Kovalevskaya is “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.”

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