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Sophia Kovalevskaya Depicted in Alice Munro Story

August 3, 2009

The August 2009 issue of Harper's Magazine highlights the math-inspired title story of Alice Munro's latest book, "Too Much Happiness." 

Set in Victorian Europe, "Too Much Happiness" recounts the final winter journey of émigré Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya. It takes her from the French Riviera, to Paris, Germany, and the Danish Isles, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor. At her final stop in Sweden, Kovalevskaya takes up a position at Stockholm University, the only university in Europe willing to appoint a woman mathematician.

Although Munro's story is fiction, Kovalevskaya's mathematical achievements and her relationships with key mathematicians of the era, such as Weierstrass, Mittag-Leffler, and Poincaré, are based on fact. "Actually, this science [mathematics] requires great fantasy," Alice Munro quotes Kovalevskaya as saying. Kovalevskaya, who was the first major Russian female mathematician and the first woman named to a full professorship in Northern Europe, was responsible for original contributions to analysis, differential equations, and mechanics. A crater on the moon was later named for Kovalevskaya.

Munro was awarded the International Man Booker Prize earlier this year for her contribution to an achievement in fiction on the world stage. For another depiction of Kovalevskaya, see the 1983 Swedish film "A Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon."

Source: Harper's Magazine, August 2009. 

Start Date: 
Monday, August 3, 2009