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Sophie Germain and My Latest Talks and Articles

It is hard to believe we are already at mid-summer, but we are. It has been quite a while since I posted about my activities, and I’ve been busy.

Back in early June, I published “When Is It Reasonable to Choose Ignorance,” in Skeptical Inquirer. It reports on the wide reluctance of people at risk for Huntington’s Disease to take the genetic test that will reveal whether they will have it. Huntington’s is a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition that starts between the ages of 30 and 50, and there is no cure. People with an affected parent have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease, but very few people get tested.


At the beginning of July, thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, I was able to travel to France to attend the Timeworld 2021 conference on the topic of Randomness. My presentation was called, “Can Humans Tolerate a Random World,” and the organizers were kind enough to let me give it in English. I was able to combine the trip with a vacation in Paris, a city I’d never visited before. What a beautiful place! My talk has been posted on YouTube and is available below.


More recently, I gave a talk, “Superstition: The Full Story,” over Zoom for Skeptical Inquirer Presents, a program sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, the publisher of the magazine I write for, Skeptical Inquirer. I had a very fun time with this talk, given that it was largely an audience of fellow travelers in the skeptical world. In addition, I got to work with the amazing Leighann Lord, standup comedian and host for many Center for Inquiry events. I had a blast. The video for the talk is below.


I will leave you with one discovery from my trip to Paris. In addition to the usual art museums and other sights, I made a point of seeking out some science-related spots, some of which I plan to write about in a future Skeptical Inquirer article. I visited Père Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the city, which, today, is widely known for the grave of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the ’60s rock group, The Doors. But hidden away, not far from Morrison, is the grave of the great French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776-1831), As a woman in the 18th and 19th centuries, Germain suffered considerable discrimination in her efforts to become a mathematician. She was not allowed to attend the École Polytechnique, so to get around this problem, she assumed the identity of a former student, Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc, obtained the lecture notes, and submitted answers to problems. Ultimately, the professor, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, one of the finest mathematicians of the 19th century, was so impressed with her solutions, that he demanded to meet the Monsieur Le Blanc, forcing Germain to reveal herself. Happily, Lagrange was delighted to meet Germain and soon became her mentor and friend. 

Germain published work on elasticity and foundational work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, but she continued to suffer indignities after her death. When the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians were engraved around the base. All are men. Ironically, Germain’s work on elasticity was essential to the construction of the tower, but her name was omitted. 

When, after considerable searching, I was able to find Germain’s grave at Père Lachaise, I was surprised to find a tree growing out of it. (See the photo above.) Although there is some evidence the City of Paris has made efforts to maintain her gravesite, it was difficult to get a good view of her gravestone due to the size of the tree trunk and the scattered shrubs around it. Initially, I was quite disappointed to see the grave of a great mathematician in this condition, but perhaps there is another way to think about it. Trees are traditional symbols of both life and knowledge, and perhaps the tree growing through Sophie Germain’s grave can be seen as a metaphor for her determination to learn and contribute to mathematics despite the forces aligned against her. Perhaps it can be seen as a symbol of her strength.

Personally, I prefer that solution. 


That’s all for now. Enjoy the summer.

SV

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