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Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya in the spotlight on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

The Science Museum of the University of Navarra highlights in a video the talent of the Russian scientist who became one of the first female professors in Europe.

10 | 02 | 2022

Sofia Kovalevskaya was a Russian scientist who had to overcome barriers of discrimination against women in both the academic and scientific world and, thanks to her talent and tenacity, was one of the first women to obtain a doctorate and be appointed professor at a European university.

On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Science Museum of the University of Navarra has launched a new video in the series "Women in Science" to highlight the career of this scientist who is unknown to the general public. Kovalevskaya joins the list of women highlighted in this initiative of knowledge dissemination in which Janaki Ammal, Lynn Margulis, Mary Anning, Gerty Cori, Margarita Salas, Cecilia Payne, among many others, have already been protagonists.

Sofia Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow in 1850 into a wealthy noble family. She developed an early enthusiasm for science thanks to her uncle Fyodor Schubert. In addition, Sofia's father supported her training in mathematics from an early age, and she received private lessons from Alexander Nicolaievich Strannoliubskii.

Kovalevskaya married Vladimir Kovalevskij at the age of 18 for convenience in order to be able to continue her studies training - at that time in Russia women were not allowed to attend university and the only way to travel outside the country was by parental or spousal consent.

In 1870 she went to Berlin to work with Karl Weierstrass, considered the father of modern analysis. Weierstrass was reluctant to give lessons to women and set Sofia a series of mathematical problems on test , convinced that she would be unable to solve them. When Sofia handed the solutions to Weierstrass, he was so impressed that he agreed to give her free private lessons - the University of Berlin did not allow women in the classrooms either. Weierstrass himself directed Sophia's doctoral thesis , degree scroll , which she was able to obtain, after overcoming many obstacles, at the University of Göttingen in 1874. She was one of the first women to obtain a university doctorate .

In 1884 the mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler secured a position for Sophia as a lecturer at the University of Stockholm, a one-year, unpaid position work . Students paid Sofia directly for her lectures. During these years Kovalevskaya devoted herself to the mathematical description of the rotational motion of a body around a fixed point, similar to that of a spinning top. The precise mathematical description of this motion subject involves a complex system of differential equations of extraordinary complexity. At that time only two cases were known in which these equations had been solved thanks to the work of two important mathematicians: Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) and Joseph-Louise Lagrange (1736-1813). In 1888, the "Kovalevskaya spinning top" was added to Euler's and Lagrange's equations, for which Sophia was awarded the award Bordin in mathematics by the Paris Academy of Sciences. Six months later, in May 1889, she was appointed professor for life at the University of Stockholm, where she continued to work until her death in 1891 at the age of 41.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation currently awards the award Sofja Kovalevskaja and grants up to 1.65 million euros per project at any area from research to talented young researchers to build and lead teams from research in Germany.