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Ma Li

Mathematics or literature: Sophie Kowalevski's choice


Are there innate differences between men and women which cause women to gravitate toward literary activity and men toward quantitative activity? According to Sophie Kowalevski (Sonja Kovalevskaya 1850-1891) it is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul. In all her life she was unable to decide to which she was more attracted - mathematics or literature. She said that possibly, in each of these areas she might have accomplished more, if she would have given herself up to it exclusively, nonetheless she was not able to renounce one of them completely.

Kowalevski was born in Russia as Sofya Vasilievna Kryukovskaya in 1850. In order to get higher education in Germany, she married at the age of 18. She was conferred a PhD in mathematics and invited to Sweden. Then she began to write her recollections of growing up in Russia, based on her childhood memories. Kowalevski wrote in her mother tongue Russian, but the first publication in 1889 was a translation into Swedish.

Her other literary output includes a number of plays, novellas, poems, essays, and sketches, some of which were unfinished. Most of these might be of less or marginal literary interest today although some were widely read and reviewed at that time. In spite of her choosing mathematics above literature, Kowalevski did pursue literary activities - indeed not merely out of interest. Based on her writings I hope to show some interesting insight we can get into the complex nature of her personality and the psychological dynamics that shaped her.

After my earlier studies on Kowalevski's achievements in mathematics, and further studies on her life from a gender perspective, this presentation will focus on some aspects related to her literary endeavor and output.

SvD, November 2012

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