The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I recently encountered a heartfelt diatribe (called Photo 51) by Megha, a bioscientist blogger who posts with a feminist perspective on various topics. To paraphrase: Watson and Crick (of DNA double helix fame) obtained much valuable information from Rosalind Franklin that led to their great discovery; they did not acknowledge her contributions and indeed seem to have disparaged her even after her untimely death; there appears to have been the usual chauvinistic dismissal of her abilities by her department head, Wilkins, who went on to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick; and women to this day suffer from large-scale discrimination in the sciences.

[I thought this was a fairly well-known tale of sliminess. I've known about it since I was a kid when I read about DNA. Many of my friends at IISc were aware of it too. I am, therefore, a tad surprised that Megha, a scientist, only seems to have heard of it through a recent PBS programme.]

Many women who are faced with similar sexism (even at the highest levels of science) bristle when they are told that they exaggerate the discrimination. Even a century ago, goes the argument, the likes of Madame Curie were winning Nobels. Unhappily, other than Marie Curie, very few other women Nobelists are famous. Partly this is because only a dozen women in total have won Nobels in the sciences. Also, it is because very few people actually care to know. Indeed, who can recall the names of any Nobel winners, even males, of, say, the past five decades?

When I hear stories such as Franklin's, I'm outraged. However, (and this is very rare indeed) in the history of science there have also been moments of chivalry (not that Megha would approve, as she detests the idea of gender-driven courtesies). Consider, exempli gratia, the story of Sophie Germain, Joseph Lagrange, and Karl Gauss:

Germain, born into a petit-bourgeois family, showed extraordinary mathematical ability from childhood. It was discouraged heavily in keeping with the spirit of the times. But when she continued to keep at her studies, her father began to encourage and support her. She took on the name of an absent student, LeBlanc, at the Ecole Polytechnique, and attended classes by correspondence. When she sent in her homework, Lagrange - a professor at the school, and one of the finest mathematicians of all time - was surprised to see an erstwhile incompetent student suddenly bloom into brilliance. He asked to meet this LeBlanc. Germain had to abandon her incognito and present herself. This was much to Lagrange's joy and satisfaction, and for long thereafter, he avidly encouraged her exploration into cutting-edge mathematics.

Germain is famous for considerably advancing the state-of-the-art leading to the solution of Fermat's Last Theorem. One of her heroes was Karl Gauss, widely considered the greatest mathematician ever. Diffidently, she engaged him in correspondence about her work on the Fermat Theorem, still hiding behind her nom-de-plume of LeBlanc. Gauss was gracious and encouraging in his replies. A while later, when Napoleon invaded Germany, Germain begged a French general to ensure Gauss' safety. She recalled the story of Archimedes - killed by an ignorant soldier during the Roman invasion of Syracuse - and was concerned that a similar fate might befall her hero. The general told Gauss that a Mademoiselle Germain had striven to keep him secure. Gauss was puzzled as he had never heard of the woman. Sophie was forced to reveal her identity in her next letter.

Gauss's joy at discovering the identity of his interlocutor is a delight to behold, especially in light of the bitterness that has generally informed the relations between scientists of either sex. He wrote back:
But how to describe to you my admiration and astonishment at seeing my esteemed correspondent Monsieur Le Blanc metamorphose himself into this illustrious personage who gives such a brilliant example of what I would find it difficult to believe. A taste for the abstract sciences in general and above all the mysteries of numbers is excessively rare: one is not astonished at it: the enchanting charms of this sublime science reveal only to those who have the courage to go deeply into it. But when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudices, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarize herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius.
The relationship was not to last. As Gauss lost interest in number theory and moved on to other fields, he stopped responding to Germain's letters. Germain appears to have been discouraged by this lack of interest from one she considered a mentor, and abandoned number theory herself. She continued to do sterling research, however, especially in mathematical physics.

Her fellow mathematicians in France, for the most part, seem to have treated her with respect. In the social spheres, her sex, as expected, played against her again and again. As the historian, H. J. Mozans said:
All things considered, she was probably the most profoundly intellectual woman that France has ever produced. And yet, strange as it may seem, when the state official came to make out her death certificate, he designated her as a "rentière-annuitant" (a single woman with no profession) -- not as a "mathématicienne." Nor is this all. When the Eiffel Tower was erected, there was inscribed on this lofty structure the names of seventy-two savants. But one will not find in this list the name of that daughter of genius, whose researches contributed so much toward establishing the theory of the elasticity of metals -- Sophie Germain. Was she excluded from this list for the same reason she was ineligible for membership in the French Academy -- because she was a woman? If such, indeed, was the case, more is the shame for those who were responsible for such ingratitude toward one who had deserved so well of science, and who by her achievements had won an enviable place in the hall of fame.
In 1831, Gauss persuaded the University of Gottingen to award her an honorary degree for her achievements in the mathematical sciences. She was suffering from terminal breast cancer at the time, but surely would have been overjoyed at the recognition from the Prince of Mathematicians.

Tragically, however, she died shortly before she could receive the award.


Louis L. Bucciarelli and Nancy Dworsky, 1980: Sophie Germain: An Essay in the History of the Theory of Elasticity (Dordrecht: D. Reidel)

H. J. Mozans, 1913: Woman in Science (reprint1974, MIT Press )

Judy Green, How Many Women Mathematicians Can You Name?


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