College of Science

Professor's historical math novel is published by MAA

A UT Arlington professor has taken on the mystery of how a woman growing up in late-18th century France came out of nowhere to make a name for herself with the world's most renowned mathematicians.

The Mathematical Association of America recently re-published Sophie's Diary: A Mathematical Novel. In the 279-page novel, Dora Musielak, an adjunct professor of physics and aerospace engineering, uses fiction to take up where records about mathematician Sophie Germain leave off.

In 1816, Germain made history by becoming the first woman to win an international contest put on by the Institut de France for her mathematical theory of elasticity. Germain is also the first and only woman in history to make a substantial contribution to Fermat's Last Theorem, a famously difficult mathematical problem that took 300 years to prove.

Musielak's book follows Germain from ages 13 to 17, during the years 1789 to 1793. The author blends her imaginings about how Germain's early education unfolded with historical facts about the French Revolution, which was taking place around Germain's home in Paris. Musielak weaves mathematics and truths from the history of mathematics to make the story more convincing.

Musielak hopes her book inspires mathematicians, especially young women, and informs the world about Germain's contributions.

"What I wanted most of all was to put into context the environment surrounding the young Sophie Germain who, against all odds, became one of the greatest women mathematicians in history," Musielak said.

"I wanted to present a perspective - my perspective - on how Germain must have learned mathematics before she began interacting with the great scholars of her time," she added.

Biographers believe that as young woman, Germain assumed the name of a male student at coleÉ Polytechnique in Paris to submit her own work to celebrated mathematician and professor Joseph-Louis Lagrange.

She was the daughter of a silk merchant and, though she would have had access to books, there is no account of how she honed her mathematical

Cover art of Sophie's Diary.
skills. Her later work on theories about elasticity and vibration formed a foundation for other more noted scholars to build, said Musielak.

Writing Sophie's Diary began as a side project for Musielak, "a labor of love" she took on in addition to her international contributions to the world of high-speed propulsion. A NASA fellow, Musielak has worked for several aerospace companies. Like Germain, she is a trailblazer. In 1978, she was the first woman to graduate from the Polytechnic Institute of Mexico with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

"Dr. Musielak is a role model for young, female scientists and engineers," said Pamela Jansma, dean of the College of Science. "Bringing the story of Sophie Germain to a wider audience is another way she is helping to encourage young women."

Musielak first self-published Sophie's Diary. It became a success and caught the attention of David Pengelley, a professor at New Mexico State University and Germain scholar. He wrote a review calling the book "delightful to read" and encouraged Musielak to seek a wider audience.

"The writing style is that of a truly curious, sensitive and articulate young person, and the blur between fact and fiction is excellent, seductively leaving one believing that the fictional Sophie's writing is the real one's life," Pengelley said in the journal Mathematical Intelligencer.

Sophie's Diary is available at the UT Arlington bookstore, 400 S. Pecan St. Copies can also be ordered at maa-store.hostedbywebstore.com.

Posted May 18, 2012