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Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya (2002)
Joan Spicci
Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

This book is a novelized account of the life of Sofia Kovalevskaya (aka Sonia Kovalevskey and infinitely1 many alternative spellings), famous today as the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. The book focuses only on the period from her youth until she received the degree, and pays the greatest attention to the fascinating social aspects of this true story. In particular, it focuses on the social obstacles that could prevent a woman from being able to receive an education, and Sofia's "false marriage" to a man who could arrange for her to receive it. In addition to the interesting emotional drama surrounding her marriage, we encounter a little bit of mathematics and a few famous historical mathematicians who are impressed with Kovalevkaya's mathematical abilities.

The book seems to be well researched. (I do not know enough about this period in Russian history or the life of Kovalevskaya to know for certain, but the author claims to know Russian and to have translated some of Kovaleveskaya's personal documents, so I'll just assume that this is accurate. Its authenticity seems to be confirmed by the very positive review of the book written by Ann Hibner Koblitz, who is most certainly an expert! ) Spicci relies heavily on dialogue in writing this book, as if it were a play, and rarely describes scenery or provides significant information through narration.

Forgive me for including this, but I am often bothered by the misuse of the term "mathematician" and just want to use this opportunity to correct it. In the "about the author" appendix, Spicci describes herself as a mathematician. I'm afraid that her training as a mathematics teacher does not make her a mathematician (at least as I use the word). Mathematicians are the people who do mathematics, and not everyone who learns or teaches mathematics is a mathematician. Note, as an analogy, that being an English teacher does not make one an author. (She lists her membership in the Association for Women in Mathematics as evidence that she is a mathematician, but I could join that organization and it would not make me a woman.)

It is for this very reason that I think it is important to point out that Kovalevskaya is famous not only because she was a woman, but also because of her research which is significant in its own right. Kovalevskaya was not only a math student, but also a mathematician. One can still read today about "Kovalevsky's Top" which provided some initial foundational research into the modern theory of integrable systems.

Also see the film Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon, also about Kovalevskaya.

It may be relevant to some readers that Spicci is married to Fred Saberhagen of science-fiction fame, though this book should certainly cement her independent reputation as an author.

Contributed by Kathryn Pedings

I thought that Spicci did a wonderful job of portraying Sofya Kovalevskaya's life in an interesting and entertaining way. The dialogue throughout seemed very fitting for the time period and the situations that Sofya encountered. I only gave the math content a rating of 2 because there was very little math seen throughout. Being a work of mathematical fiction, I wish that more attention would have been payed to the content of her research and the specific subject areas she was working in. I would have really loved to hear more about the spinning top that Kovalevskaya is so famous for. Spicci calls it her "mermaid," but little more information is given to us about it. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and any woman who may be considering entering a career in mathematics as it will help you to appreciate the trials that were overcome for this priviledge of an education.

1 Algebraic geometer Frans Oort has registered a complaint regarding my use of the concept of "infinity" here. He writes "I feel that a mathematician should use the words `infinitely many' if you really mean what you write. (Many non-mathematicians abuse, but they do not know better.)" I apologize if this looked like a thoughtless use of "infinitely" as if it were a synonym for "a great many". It was intended to be a joke.

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Works Similar to Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  2. A Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon by Lennart Hjulström
  3. Uniform Convergence: A One-Woman Play by Corrine Yap
  4. Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by Jennifer Chiaverini
  5. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  6. Continuums by Robert Carr
  7. Murder, She Conjectured by Alex Kasman
  8. The Goddess of Small Victories [La déesse des petites victoire] by Yannick Grannec
  9. Le Cas de Sophie K. by Jean-Frangois Peyret (playwright and director)
  10. D'Alembert's Principle: A Novel in Three Panels by Andrew Crumey
Ratings for Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.33/5 (3 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifGenius, Real Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians, Sonya Kovalevskaya,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)