When you can’t sleep at night, do you lie awake in the dark, wondering what kind of equation would describe the rotation of a wobbling top?
If your answer is yes, you’re in good company.
Meet Sophie Kowalevski, a Russian mathematician born in 1850, who spent years pondering this question.
But because she was a woman, she was excluded from the academic boys’ club. Did she let that stop her? Well, if she did, there would be no story here.
Her father, thankfully, encouraged her enthusiasm for this super-female-phobic field. When we see her briefly as a child, we enter her bedroom papered with her father’s old college math notes.
She spent hours deciphering the equations on her walls, then begged to read a physics book, and puzzled through its pages until she understood it on her own.
Her father then paid a private tutor who quickly found himself at the limits of his own knowledge. She needed to attend a university to learn more. But to do so, she needed to travel from Russia to Germany, a trip she was not allowed to make alone.
The solution? A marriage of convenience so she could travel. But when she arrived in Heidelberg, they wouldn’t let her attend as a student. So she sat in the back of the class—when she wasn’t getting up to correct a professor’s equation on the chalk board.
After “taking” all of the classes in Heidelberg, she moved to Berlin, where she found they wouldn’t even allow her to set foot on campus! Here, she blew away the top mathematician by acing a test (100%) he gave only to his most advanced students. He was so impressed, he took her on as a private student for the next four years.
But to earn her PhD, she had to solve a problem no one else had ever solved. She did this, then learned that someone else—a man—had beaten her to publication.
Did she crumple? Did she throw up her hands and head back to Russia?
She decided to work on THREE mathematical problems—and published three new papers with their solutions! Unprecedented! Unbelievable!!
Of course the University of Berlin would award her a degree!!!
No. She was still a woman.
Did she give up? Did she throw up her hands and head back to Russia?
She found another university, Gottingen, willing to grant her the degree she had just earned three times over.
But they would still not allow her to teach.
So she found yet another university willing to let her teach—
for free, of course, because she was a woman.
Is there no end to the discrimination against women? We all know that answer.
In this case, the younger generation turned out to be more forward-thinking. When Sophie entered her first classroom to teach, her twelve students (all men), stood and applauded.
At the end of the semester, she was finally granted full professorship, along with a salary.
Whew! Now, for a long and productive life using equations to describe our physical—wait!—
a virus interrupted the happily ever after…
Sadly, Sophie died in 1891 at age 41, during the ongoing flu pandemic. The cause was specified as pneumonia. Her brilliance was but a brief flame in the darkness.
The sepia-toned illustrations by Yevgenia Nayberg contain eye-catching angles, ovals, and spheres sprinkled with equations, all alluding to how math rules our physical world. Take note of many of the characters’ eyes; they help convey skepticism and in many cases humor, when we see students either confused or asleep at their desks. Kudos to Laurie Wallmark for making her explanations of Sophie’s achievements clear within the text, and even more kid-friendly in the back matter, where she uses examples like an amusement park ride, robots, and asteroids to help further understanding.
A note about craft: The reader isn’t first asked to connect with Sophie as a child but with a child’s toy and her wonder at how it wobbles. We do not see her as a child until the third spread of the book in her fabulous bedroom, papered with equations. Yevgenia exaggerates the size of the spinning top in the first spread and places Sophie midst equations of planetary movement in the second, creating a sense of wonder at the magic that is our physical universe, and how math is used to describe that magic.
Five games to play with spinning tops
Make a model of Saturn and its rings, extra points for showing how a cross-section of its rings are oval, not elliptical.
Use the Cyrillic alphabet to write your name in Russian.
Title: Numbers in Motion: Sophie Kowalevski, Queen of Mathematics
Author: Laurie Wallmark
Illustrator: Yevgenia Nayberg
Publisher: Creston Books, 2020
Themes: STEM, discrimination, women’s history, persistence
Ages: 3rd grade and up
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.