Sofia Kovalevskaya

Leigh Ellison

In conclusion...

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Sofia Kovalevskaya was by no means a mathematical genius or pathbreaker along the lines of Weierstrass. She did not found a new school of mathematical thought, nor was she responsible for a large number of influential papers. Nevertheless, the contributions which she did make,
completed in spite of many obstacles, certainly warrant her a place in our intellectual and mathematical history.

The Cauchy-Kovalevskaya Theorem forms a basic part of the study of partial differential equations while her work on the rotation problem was to inspire a great deal of research in that area. Some of her ideas are still receiving attention from areas of the mathematical community even today, a fact which is, indicative of the depth of her mathematical insight.

Sofia's results and the simplicity of the manner in which she presented them were admired by mathematicians across Europe. Her real impact was to be in a far more general sense however. Throughout her life, Sofia was never one to shy away from setting difficult goals for herself. Her refusal to allow the fact that she was a woman to prevent her from attaining the education she so desperately craved, as well as the respect of the mathematical community at large which she was to earn, meant that she served as a role model to women around the world. She also made a huge contribution to mathematics as a whole by facilitating the transfer of ideas between Russia and Western Europe.
[Sofia] combined mathematical creativity with concern for others and awareness of social and political issues.

In terms of the nature of her beliefs Sofia was far closer to the revolutionaries than the moderates, and was to feel guilty for not devoting herself more completely to the cause of advancing the rights of women in the manner which her sister Anuita had done. By her mathematical and literary achievements Sofia was to do far more for this cause than would otherwise have been the case. The precedents which she set by obtaining her doctorate and earning a professorship in Stockholm are incredible impressive when the barriers which she faced on the road to achieving them are remembered.

Sofia was not to receive the kind of recognition that she deserved within Russia during her lifetime, with feminist Nadezhda Stasova saying that she, was not valued enough [in Russia]. In the years which have followed her death, thankfully that has not continued to be the case. With the Russian authorities having realised the importance of her contribution to the history of mathematics, her image has appeared on stamps which were issued in both 1951 and 1996. An international conference dedicated to the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of her birth was held in St. Petersburg in May, 2000 also. The international community at large continues to recognise her work, with her papers and their applications being discussed in a series of sessions at an American Mathematical Society meeting and at a Kovalevskaya symposium, both of which were held in Massachusetts in 1985. Her name has also been given to a crater on the moon making Sofia one of fewer than a dozen women to be so honoured.

It was Sofia's mentor and tutor who was to feel her loss most deeply. Of her death he said,
'People die, ideas endure': it would be enough for the eminent figure of Sofia to pass into posterity on the lone virtue of her mathematical and literary work.

The fact that she did enough to be remembered in such a manner is a tribute to her abilities as a mathematician and writer, but the fact that she is remembered for so much more is a tribute to the woman herself. Sofia was a complex and intriguing character who made some odd decisions during the course of her extraordinary life. She could be difficult for those close to her to deal with, yet her strong will and the manner in which she did not allow others to veer her from the course which she had decided to follow once she had made up her mind about something, were to firmly set her on the road to greatness.

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