1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kovalevsky, Sophie

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20391151911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 15 — Kovalevsky, Sophie

KOVALEVSKY, SOPHIE (1850–1891), Russian mathematician, daughter of General Corvin-Krukovsky, was born at Moscow on the 15th of January 1850. As a young girl she was fired by the aspiration after intellectual liberty that animated so many young Russian women at that period, and drove them to study at foreign universities, since their own were closed to them. This led her, in 1868, to contract one of those conventional marriages in vogue at the time, with a young student, Waldemar Kovalevsky, and the two went together to Germany to continue their studies. In 1869 she went to Heidelberg, where she studied under H. von Helmholtz, G. R. Kirchhoff, L. Königsberger and P. du Bois-Reymond, and from 1871–1874 read privately with Karl Weierstrass at Berlin, as the public lectures were not then open to women. In 1874 the university of Göttingen granted her a degree in absentia, excusing her from the oral examination on account of the remarkable excellence of the three dissertations sent in, one of which, on the theory of partial differential equations, is one of her most remarkable works. Another was an elucidation of P. S. Laplace’s mathematical theory of the form of Saturn’s rings. Soon after this she returned to Russia with her husband, who was appointed professor of palaeontology at Moscow, where he died in 1883. At this time Madame Kovalevsky was at Stockholm, where Gustaf Mittag Leffler, also a pupil of Weierstrass, who had been recently appointed to the chair of mathematics at the newly founded university, had procured for her a post as lecturer. She discharged her duties so successfully that in 1884 she was appointed full professor. This post she held till her death on the 10th of February 1891. In 1888 she achieved the greatest of her successes, gaining the Prix Bordin offered by the Paris Academy. The problem set was “to perfect in one important point the theory of the movement of a solid body round an immovable point,” and her solution added a result of the highest interest to those transmitted to us by Leonhard Euler and J. L. Lagrange. So remarkable was this work that the value of the prize was doubled as a recognition of unusual merit. Unfortunately Madame Kovalevsky did not live to reap the full reward of her labours, for she died just as she had attained the height of her fame and had won recognition even in her own country by election to membership of the St Petersburg Academy of Science.

See E. de Kerbedz, “Sophie de Kowalevski,” Benidiconti del circolo mathematico di Palermo (1891); the obituary notice by G. Mittag Leffler in the Acta mathematica, vol. xvi.; and J. C. Poggendorff, Biographisch-literarisches Handwörterbuch.