Sophie Germain, a tech heroine

When I first heard about Ada Lovelace Day, I started thinking about who I’d write about. I figured the usual suspects like Grace Hopper were out, but that left the field wide open – there are so many cool women around in different fields.

Yet despite all the possibilities in times and fields closer to my own, I’ve ended up thinking about a woman who who died 178 years ago. Mathematician and physicist Marie-Sophie Germain has been described as “probably the most profoundly intellectual woman that France has ever produced”.  I have long-since forgotten my high school maths and physics, but I was drawn to her stubbornness, her tenacity, her sheer need to keep learning. about.com says:

After discovering geometry, Sophie Germain taught herself mathematics, and also Latin and Greek so that she could read the classical mathematics texts. Her parents opposed her study and tried to stop it, so she studied at night. They took away candles and forbid nighttime fires, even taking her clothes away, all so that she could not read at night. Her response: she smuggled candles, she wrapped herself in her bedclothes. She still found ways to study.

She was eventually recognised by the French Academy of Sciences, though her history is full of poignant reminders of the difficulties she faced.  PBS says:

Although she made no further contributions to proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, others were to build on her work. She had offered hope that those equations in which n equals a Germain prime could be tackled, however the remaining values of n remained intractable.

After Fermat, Germain embarked on an eventful career as a physicist, a discipline in which she would again excel only to be confronted by the prejudices of the establishment. Her most important contribution to the subject was “Memoir on the Vibrations of Elastic Plates,” a brilliantly insightful paper which was to lay the foundations for the modern theory of elasticity.

From a different perspective:

Although it was Germain who first attempted to solve a difficult problem, when others of more training, ability and contact built upon her work, and elasticity became an important scientific topic, she was closed out. Women were simply not taken seriously. (MacTutor History of Mathematics)

I think this is the saddest of all – Britannica says, “[d]uring the 1820s she worked on generalizations of her research but, isolated from the academic community on account of her gender and thus largely unaware of new developments taking place in the theory of elasticity, she made little real progress.”

It’s sad, not just on a personal level – imagine having that brain, that drive to collaborate and create, and not being taken seriously because of your gender – but can you imagine how much further the field of mathematics or physics might have advanced if she’d been supported and allowed to participate fully in the scientific community?

I couldn’t find any images of Sophie Germain that I could clearly re-use, so instead you could go check out the range of faces tagged womensday on the Flickr Commons site, many of whom are scientists or inventors themselves. If I knew more about them I’d look for candidates for Modern Bluestocking.

Ada Lovelace Day at the Science Museum

I’m really excited that we’ve managed to get some new pages and updated text about Ada Lovelace on the Science Museum website, and particularly that it’s in time for Ada Lovelace Day.  On a personal note, I’m thrilled because ‘women in technology’ has long been an issue close to my heart.  I think role models are important and I don’t know if you can get better than the woman often described as “the world’s first computer programmer”. 

It’s also exciting because it shows that with the right infrastructure, and institutional support, museums can move quickly (ish) and be responsive to current events.  It couldn’t have happened without the support of the curatorial and marketing departments.

The Computing gallery in the Science Museum has some great objects – Babbage’s Analytical Engine and the Difference Engine built by the Science Museum according to Babbage’s original specifications (and half ofBabbage’s brain in a jar).  There are also performances by the Ada Lovelace drama character on Tuesday, March 24, so pop in if you’re in London.

Speaking of Ada Lovelace Day, I’d better get my ALD09 blog post written tonight!  If you’re not sure who to write about I’ve posted about possible candidates under the label AdaLovelaceDay09.

Looking for inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day?

The GetSETWomen Blog is a great source of inspiring women in technology to blog about for Ada Lovelace Day.

The UKRC‘s GetSETWomen network for women in science, engineering or technology (SET) site also includes an astronomy blog where a variety of women will post ‘a one-off entry about the role of astronomy and outer space in their lives’ for the International Year of Astronomy, and the 2008 Outstanding Women in SET: Photographic Exhibition is another good source. It’s a shame they haven’t listed the ‘outstanding women in SET’ for 2009 ahead of the launch of the exhibition but check back in mid-March.

[Updated to add:] The Global Women Inventors & Innovators Network(GWIIN) website might also throw up some leads, and the related British Female Inventor of the Year award site has some great stories about women inventors.

I’ve also been listing inspiring women at modernbluestocking.freebase.com, though as it’s a much broader project, not everyone listed works with technology.

If you’re not sure why female role models matter, these articles explain it well.

Finding Ada – creating new female role models

I should be studying for exams but I wanted to quickly post about Ada Lovelace Day. The organiser asks for pledges to “publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire”. You can find out more about why at the link above, but the point about why role models are important is worth repeating:

Undoubtedly it’s a complex issue, but recent research may shed some light: Psychologist Penelope Lockwood discovered that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones.

Well, that’s a relatively simple problem to begin to address. If women need female role models, let’s come together to highlight the women in technology that we look up to. Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues.

Thus was born Ada Lovelace Day, and this pledge:

“I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

Who would you blog about? I’ve signed the pledge so I’d better start thinking.

[Edited to add: if you’re interested in researching and making information about inspiring female role models accessible, you might be interested in ‘modern bluestocking‘. Contributions and suggestions are very welcome, especially from a technical perspective. And I will be shamelessly checking out suggestions for Ada Lovelace Day to add to the nascent modernbluestocking topic on Freebase.]