Sofia Kovalevskaya

From Academic Kids

103; Васильевна Ковалевская) (January 15, 1850February 10, 1891) was a Russian mathematician and a student of Karl Weierstrass in Berlin. In 1881 she was appointed professor at Stockholm University, the third woman in Europe to become a professor.

Kovalevskaya was born in Moscow. Her father was Vasily Vasilievich Kriukovskoi (1800-1874), an artillery officer of Belarusian ("Polish") descent. He managed to convince the Russians to list him as descended of aristocracy, a Hungarian king in particular; in 1858 he was permitted to change his surname to Korvin-Krukovsky.

Her mother was Elizaveta Fyodorovna Schubert (1820-1879). She was granddaughter of Theodor Schubert aka Fyodor Ivanovich Schubert (mathematician and astronomer of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences) via Fyodor Fyodorovich Schubert (another Academician) and had more education and "appreciation of the finer things" than her husband.

Sofia Kovalevskaya contributed to the understanding of partial differential equations (the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya theorem) and essentially completed the study of rotating solids, applying the then-new theory of Abelian functions (and thus "justifying" the enormous effort that was put into the theory).

Kovalevskaya had a crush on Fyodor Dostoevsky and practiced his favourite piano work, Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, to get his attention, but he was focused on the older sister Anna and he very probably proposed to her.

There seem to have been several roots to Sofia's mathematical bent. Some came from her father, accidentally; he had studied calculus in the army, and when they ran short of proper wallpaper for one house, used his old notes instead. Sofia spent many hours of childhood scrutinising the strange scribbles. Something of it seems to have stuck for when she later took calculus it came to her very quickly, as if it had always been there.

She adored her uncle Pyotr Vasilievich Krukovsky, a self-taught eccentric with especial fondness for mathematics.

While reading a book on optics given to her by a family friend, she came across trigonometric concepts unfamiliar to her at the time, which she tried to explain on her own. She explained it in the same manner it was explained historically, and the friend was so impressed he implored Sophia's father to let her take private mathematical study, calling her "a new Pascal" in the process.

She died of tuberculosis in Stockholm and is interred there in the Norra begravningsplatsen.


  • Roger Cooke: The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya (Springer-Verlag, 1984)
  • Sofya Kovalevskaya: A Russian Childhood (Springer-Verlag, 1978; translated and introduced by Beatrice Stillman)
  • Ann Hibner Koblitz: A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia -- Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary (Rutgers University Press, 1983)

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