Inspired by the French mathematician Marie-Sophie Germaine, Sophie’s Diary is a work of historical fiction detailing the thoughts of a teenage girl who passionately studies mathematics at a time when women are not afforded the same educational rights as men. The story takes place in Paris during 1789–1793, amidst the violence and upheaval of the French Revolution. Against the wishes of her traditional mother, Sophie immerses herself into her studies, using her father’s library as a refuge to escape the chaos of revolutionary France and the oppressive expectation that women be entertaining and domestic. With resourcefulness and determination, Sophie gains access to the works of Archimedes, Euclid, Euler, Leibniz, Newton and others, smuggling candles into her bedroom to enable her to study late into the night.
The author is successful in capturing both the passion and the frustration commonly felt by mathematicians. In one entry, Sophie describes mathematics as “another world, a world of exquisite beauty and truth,” and through the voice of Sophie, Musielak is able to capture the solace mathematicians feel when immersed in this world. Diary entries also capture a young woman who is frustrated that others cannot understand her, including her own mother who would prefer that she fit the “Rousseauistic image of proper womanly conduct.” (Her father, on the other hand, is very supportive.) Based on my own experience as a mathematician, I find this situation to be believable.
Sophie’s Diary is intended for a general audience. Dora Musielak uses the diary entries as a venue to discuss popular mathematics (e.g., irrational numbers, Fibonacci numbers, and the golden ratio) and to relay interesting moments in mathematical history (e.g., the deaths of Archimedes and Hypatia, and Leibniz and Newton ’s independent discoveries of Calculus.) Interlaced throughout the diary entries are historically accurate accounts of the French Revolution that took place in Paris at the time. The book would be a particularly good read for high school girls who show an interest in mathematics.
Judy Holdener is currently an Associate Professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.