Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sonya Kovalevsky: Too Passionate to Live, Too Young to Die

I don't know about you, but several images pop into my mind when I think about Russia.  First there are those guys in Fiddler on the Roof who dance with a bottle on their heads.  Gorbachev wearing that cranberry map of  New Jersey on his forehead.  How about Khruschev banging his shoe on the table at the UN?  Doctor Zhivago.  Red Square.  Vodka.  Anastasia.

Furry Hats.


Who doesn't always come to mind is Sonya Kovalevsky, perhaps the smartest person to have ever graced the planet.  I know, I know, hyperbole again, but let me paint you a picture and you can decide for yourself.

Sonya Corvin-Krukovsky Kovalevsky is one of the mathematicians (in fact the main mathematician) featured in the third Bonnie Pinkwater mystery, Irrational Numbers. Born in Czarist Russia in 1850, her father, while a war hero, was a bit of a skinflint.  He wallpapered her bedroom with the mathematical papers of a then-famous Russian mathematician and teacher who in turn had directly summarized the works of Leibnitz and Newton. In other words, little Sonya had her nursery wallpapered with Calculus texts. At fifteen, when she took her first class in Differential Calculus, she and her teachers were amazed at the quickness with which she grasped the concepts, "as if I'd known them before."

Universities in Russia were closed to females, especially those wanting to study mathematics.  A possibility existed that Sonya could continue her education outside of Russia, but in order to do this she was forced into a platonic marriage with friend who most probably was a homosexual.  As would be the model for the rest of her passionate life, Sonya did what was necessary in order to pursue her dreams. Still in her teens, and with a new husband in tow, she headed off to Berlin, Germany, to study with one of the most celebrated mathematical minds of the age, Karl Weierstrass--only to run into obstacles.

At the University of Berlin they did not accept female students.  To test her intelligence (and perhaps to get rid of an insistent female) Weierstrass gave her a set of problems from the cutting edge of Analysis (advanced Calculus).  She not only solved them all, but came up with original solutions.  Unfortunately, even Weierstrass was unable get the university to accept her.  For the next four years she would pick up the great man's lectures second hand: borrowed lecture notes, private conversations, sitting in the hall outside the classroom.  Even though she could not formally study math, during this time, Sonya published several papers in such diverse areas as Physics (the study of Saturn's rings), Systems of Equations, Partial Differential Equations, Abelian Integrals, and Laplace Transforms.

She also began a career in literature.  Her struggles made her an advocate of Women's Rights, and she would  pen a best seller on the subject.

Although she and her husband did have a child, he was not equipped to meet all her demands, sexual and emotional.  He took to drinking and gambling.  She in turn, found solace outside their marriage (it was rumored that Sonya might have used her feminine charms to convince Weierstrass to mentor her).  To her eventual shame, her weak-willed husband committed suicide.

After his death, Sonya threw herself into her work.  She took her child, Foufie, across Europe with her as she tried again and again, to attain employment.  It didn't hurt that she could speak every major language in Europe.  Eventually, with Weierstrass's help, she was able to find work as a teacher at a small school in Stockholm.  Here she wrote papers on Mathematics (she won the famous Prix Bourdin Prize from the Academy of Science in Paris, which she won by concealing her gender until after the prize was awarded), and poetry and literature on Women's Rights (The Rayevsky Sisters was another bestseller).

And then she fell in love.  History does not reveal the true identity of this lover, only the one word name of Maxim.  By all accounts, he loved Sonya and her child deeply.  And for a time he was even able to accommodate the extremes that had become Sonya Kovalevsky.  Always passionate in her beliefs, Sonya had grown rigid and dark.  She insisted he support her every scientific and sometimes not so scientific endeavors.  As her brilliance grew, so did her eccentricities.  She came to believe she was a seer and could interpret dreams; she was given to dark moods where she claimed the entire world was populated with fools who did not understand her genius. In the end, Maxim was driven away by her demands.

In 1891, a dispirited Sonya left behind Foufie with some friends in Moscow and took a train back to Stockholm. She was forced to sit at a remote station in the bitter cold.  At 41 years of age she took to her sick bed and would eventually die.  Although at the time doctors said this brilliant women died of influenza, her close friends knew better.  Sonya Corvin-Krukovsky Kovelevsky never got over losing Maxim.

Perhaps the most brilliant person to have walked the Earth died of a broken heart.    


1 comment:

  1. Another amazing profile. (Tragic ending, though.)