Friday, February 21, 2014

Sofia Kovalevski linocut

Sofia Kovalevski linocut

This linocut portrait is of the great Russian mathematician and writer, Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevski (1850-1891). The linocut is printed on Japanese kozo paper 9.25" by 12.5" (23.5 cm by 32 cm) in an edition of eight. Also known as Sofie or Sonya, her last name has been transliterated from the Cyrillic Со́фья Васи́льевна Ковале́вска in a variety of ways, including Kovalevskaya and Kowalevski. Sofia's contributions to analysis, differential equations and mechanics include the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem and the famed Kovalevski top (well, famed in certain circles, no pun intended). She was the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe or to serve as editor of a major scientific journal. She is also remembered for her contributions to Russian literature. All of this despite living when Russian women were still barred from attending university. Her accomplishments were tremendous in her short but astonishing life.

Born Sofia Korvin-Krukovskaya, in Moscow, the second of three children, she attributed her early aptitude for calculus to a shortage of wallpaper, which lead her father to have the nursery papered with his old differential and integral analysis notes. Her parents nurtured her early interest in math, and hired her a tutor. The local priest's son introduced her to nihilism. So both her bent for revolutionary politics and passion for math were established early.

Unable to continue her education in Russia, like many of her fellow modern, young women including her sister, she sought a marriage of convenience. Women were both unable to study at university or leave the country without permision of their father or husband. Men sympathetic to their plight would participate in "fictitious marriages" to allow them an opportunity to seek further education abroad. She married the young paleontology student, Vladimir Kovalevsky, later famous for his collaboration with Charles Darwin. They emigrated in 1867, and by 1869 she enrolled in the German University of Heidelburg, where she could at least audit classes with the professors' permission. She studied with such luminaries as Helmholtz, Kirchhoff and Bunsen. She moved to Berlin and studied privately with Weierstrass, as women could not even audit classes there. In 1874, she present three papers, on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings (as illustrated in my linocut) and on elliptic integrals as a doctoral disertation at the University of of Göttingen. Weierstrass campaigned to allow her to defend her doctorate without usual required lectures and examinations, arguing that each of these papers warranted a doctorate, and she graduated summa cum laude - the first woman in Germany to do so. 

She and her husband counted amongst their friends the great intellectuals of the day including Fyodor Dosteyevsky (who had been engaged to her sister Ann), Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and George Elliot. The sentence "In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could hardly be less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid." from Elliot's Middlemarch, is undoubtedly due to her friendship with Kovaleski. Sofia and Vladimir believed in ideas of utopian socialism and traveled to Paris to help those the injured from the Paris Commune and help rescue Sofia's brother-in-law, Ann's husband Victor Jaclard.

In the 1880s, Sofia and her husband had financial difficulties and a complex relationship. As a woman Sofia was prevented from lecturing in mathematics, even as a volunteer. Vladimir tried working in business and then house building, with Sofia's assistance, to remain solvent. They were unsuccessful and went bankrupt. They reestablished themselves when Vladimir secured a job. Sofia occupied herself helping her neighbours to electrify street lamps. They tried returning to Russia, where their political beliefs interfered with any chance to obtain professorships. They moved on to Germany, where Vladimir's mental health suffered and they were often separated. Then, for several years, they lived a real marriage, rather than one of convenience, and they conceived their daughter Sofia, called Fufa. When Fufa turned one, Sofia entrusted her to her sister so she could return to mathematics, leaving Vladimir behind. By 1883, he faced increasing mood swings and the threat of prosecution for his role in a stock swindle. He took his own life.

Mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a fellow student of Weierstrass, helped Sofia secure a position as a privat-docent at Stockholm University in Sweden. She developed an intimate "romantic friendship" with his sister, actress, novelist, and playwright Duchess Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler, with whom she collaborated in works of literature, for the remainder of her too short life. In 1884 she was appointed "Professor Extraordinarius" (Professor without Chair) and became the editor of the journal Acta Mathematica. She won the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science, for her work on the rotation of irregular solids about a fixed point (as illustrated by the diagram in my linocut) including the discovery of the celebrated "Kovalevsky top". We now know there are only three fully integrable cases of rigid body motion and her solution ranks with those of mathematical luminaries Euler and Lagrange. In 1889, she was promoted to Professor Ordinarius (Professorial Chair holder) becoming the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university. Though she never secured a Russian professorship, the Russian Academy of Sciences granted her a Chair, after much lobbying and rule-changing on her behalf.

Her writings include the memoir A Russian Childhood, plays written in collaboration with Edgren-Leffler, and the semi-autobiographical novel Nihilist Girl (1890).

Tragically, she died at 41, of influenza during the pandemic. Prizes, lectures and a moon crater have been named in her honour. She appears in film and fiction, including Nobel laureate Alice Munro's beautiful novella 'Too Much Happiness', a title taken from Sofia's own writing about her life. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day


Hope you have a lovely Valentine's Day!

I made this linocut Valentine with my husband the archer in mind. He has to work late this evening, but we got to spend this morning together. He and Gabriel got me flowers and they got the Valentine and kisses. Gabriel seems fascinated with the bouquet.

Best of all; soon there will be a surplus of cinnamon hearts in all the stores. That's something I think we can all appreciate, even if you aren't into the other aspects of this day.

Mmmm! Cinnamon hearts. I love cinnamon hearts.

Thursday, February 13, 2014



I printed my koi block on this lovely, handmade, deep orange kozo paper I found, with a deckle edge.

I also made a new print of a JRT (Jack Russel Terrier, for those who aren't into dogs). Since it's based on a custom order, I'm going to keep it under wraps for a little while. It seems unlikely, but I would hate to spoil the surprise, should the gift recipient see the image before he receives his gift.

I've been doing some research and making notes on planned future prints.

Other than that, Gabriel has been keeping me pretty busy. His grandmother popped by unannounced today during Canada's men's hockey game, which she watched with her grandson on her knee. She's a raving tennis fan, so during the second period when she was unsure if the puck had gone in she asked whether Canada had in fact scored. Then she said, "So, it's 2-love Canada? Er.. well... in my language?"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bell Burnell and the Little Green Men

Jocelyn Bell and the LGM-1
Jocelyn Bell and the LGM-1

This year, I plan to grow my collection of portraits of women in STEM. I thought I'd get an early start on this project, with my first portrait of a scientist who is still working.

This is a linocut portrait of Jocelyn Bell (now Bell Burnell) and the incredible radioastronomy dataset she gathered when only a graduate student in 1967, working with Anthony Hewlish. The block is inked "à la poupeé" in dark blue grey and green on Japanese kozo paper. The first edition is a variable run of 10 prints, each 10" by 12.5" (25.4 cm by 31.8 cm).

In November, 1967, Jocelyn Bell (Burnell) was just a graduate student when she discovered the first radio pulsar (or pulsating star), a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation (light in the radio frequency band) can only be observed when the star is pointed towards us; so, like the light from a distant lighthouse, it appears to pulse at a precise frequency. Jocelyn Bell had been working with her supervisor Antony Hewish and others to construct a radio telescope to study quasars (quasi-stellar objects which emit radio waves). She noted some "scruff" on her chart-recorder, and then that the pulses were incredibly regular, occurring every 1.337 seconds. Hewish was initially scornful and insisted the regular pulses must be noise from a human made source. He first dubbed this object, emitting with such regularity 'LGM 1' for "Little Green Men 1", a playful joke about their uncertainty about what could emit radiation so regularly - obviously it could only be a communication from extraterrestrials hahaha! After she found other such sources, in different places with different frequencies, her colleagues became convinced. These discoveries lead to the development of the pulsar model. LGM-1 is now known PSR B1919+21.

The 1968 paper announcing this discovery in Nature has five authors, lead by Hewish, followed by Jocelyn Bell. In 1974, Hewish won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, (along with fellow radioastronomer Marlin Ryle). Jocelyn Bell was not included as it was assumed that the "senior man" was responsible for the work. This was controversial and has been condemned by many leading astronomers like Fred Hoyle (who with Thomas Gold was first able to explain the signals as due to a rapidly rotating neutron star). Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself has stated she was not upset. Bell Burnell has a great career and won many honours after her impressive start, but her exclusion from the Nobel win, based on her own research strikes me and many others as one of the more blatant and egregious examples of gender bias in the selection of Nobel prize recipients.

Cover of Joy Division's 1979 album 'Unknown Pleasures'
designed by Peter Saville, using the pulsar data
from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy
Not only the discovery, but the presentation of the data is impressive and elegant. The famous diagram (I've included behind her, and shown above) shows superimposed images of successive pulses. Stripped down to their essential information like sparklines (chart lines without annotation or axes, but drawn of course to a common scale) so their regularity really stands out, and they can be easily compared and contrasted. If you are used to looking at time series, you'll know that since they can be easily superimposed and the pulses line up, that the frequency is quite regular. The diagram is downright eloquent, and visually appealing, so it has been included in books on data visualization and was used in the iconic design of Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' album. From there the diagram itself has become a sort of visual meme and can be found in all sorts of different media and reinterpreted in everything from tattoos to fashion. (You can read my take on this meme itself here: Astrophysical Meme: Jocelyn Bell Burnell's Pulsar, Little Green Me, Joy Division and Beautiful Data ).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weather Prognosticating Rodent Day

It's that time of year again - the day we harass the celebrity rodents and use their sense of their own shadows, or lack thereof as a cue to weather forecasting. Happy Groundhog Day!

Groundhog votes are in: Shubenacadie Sam: no shadow; Wiarton Willie: shadow; Punxsutawney Phil shadow, minouette's linocut thermochromic groundhog print: shadow. I bet my print is more accurate than some of those celebrity rodents (cough! Shubenacadie Sam). False positives (which would occur if it's above 30C or 86 F on February 2nd in Toronto) are unlikely.  

If you live near me, chances are good (as in most years) that there will be 6 more weeks of winter, beyond the 2nd of February, but I do hope that your weather is not too harsh and may even be enjoyable whereever you are.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Warm My Heart - both states Another ♥s milestone on things from secret minouette places today; the shop now has more than 2200 fans! It's gratifying, encouraging feedback from the invisible people out there on the internet who actually find and appreciate my work. So, I'd like to take a moment to thank each and every one, as well as the 850 Etsy followers, 889 twitter followers, 1449 pinterest followers, 614 fans of the things from secret minouette places fanpage, and last but not least, anyone who follows this blog!