My Photo


  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« FROM THE ARCHIVES: out of sequence | Main | stormy weather »


Frank: You know she proved a famous theorem (the Cauchy-Kovalaskaya Theorem), right?

Walt mentiones the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya theorem; that is right, but it does not seem to be that "famous". If you ask a math student, or even a math prof, about the theorem it is likely they do not have a clue. Anyway, you do not find much trace of SK in the modern math literature. The reason is, I think, because she liked to solve problems which however did not yield any radically new methods to my knowledge. (Here one should consult R. Cooke's book, but it is not availabe to me at the moment.) At one point studying the Saturn ring problem she faced infinite matrices but she did not investigate this new territory further.

Browsing my library for traces of SK I came across a tidbit on math and literature by Grattan-Guiness (The rainbow of mathematics, 1997:754). He can think of only one figure eminent as both mathematician and poet (Omar al-Khayyam), but "in prose, Sonya Kovalevskaya and Felix Hausdorff wrote plays, and she also produced short novels and the best mathematician's autobiography". The last point is very true.

Really, the CK theorem isn't that well-known? I find that hard to believe. It's one of the foundational results for partial differential equations. Maybe not all mathematicians would encounter it, but math is so broad now that that's true for most famous theorems (how many people know what the Hirzebruch-Riemann-Roch theorem says? But Hirzebruch won a Fields Medal for it.)

I think that Amalie Emmy Noether deserves a treatment like this too. She did, after all, prove one of the most beautiful, general and important theorems in modern physics, which intimately connects symmetries and conservation laws.

Emmy Noether's definitely on my "to post" list, particularly since she mentored another reader's suggestion, Grete Hermann. There is, alas, very little easily available information about Hermann online, so that post must wait until I have time to get to an actual library or similar resource...

As for the question of famous vs not-so-famous -- well, someone can be famed in math circles but less well known in physics circles, and vice versa. It goes without saying that the "stars" in both fields rarely, if ever, get featured on ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. More's the pity. I'd like to see their bubblehead on-air "hosts" just try to _pronounce_ the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya theorem...

Although the status of the CK-theorem is a sideline here, I still think it belongs to the less wellknown. You hardly meet it even in typical books on PDE. In my library I find only one textbook (by Peter J Olver) w/ direct reference to CKT and SK's paper (1875). As Noether's theorem was mentioned, that one is in contrast quite wellknown though it has been *rediscovered* many times by ignorant physicists. Interestingly Noether considered it to be a minor piece, while her great oeuvre belonged to (abstract) Algebra (where she was a transformer Gestalt, and in a way fouded a School).

I had read about Mme. Kovaleskya when I was a child, but had not heard about Mary Somerville. Thanks for bringing her to my attention. I think Emmy Noether definitely deserves a writeup. Her work is of tremendous importance to physics (symmetry principles). You may be interested in this website:
as well as this website which has an exhaustive list of
prominent women mathematicians, past and present:

If you want an example of someone who's unjustly forgotten, I nominate Grete Hermann. She was the first person to point out that Von Neumann's proof that hidden variable theories of quantum mechanics is wrong, a fact rediscovered 40 years later by John Bell.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.