Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, WE FOUND 20-year-old Sonja Kowaleski—she, of the marvelous blue eyes—charming the 55-year-old Professor Karl Weierstrass into accepting her as a student. Her large and floppy hat helped Weierstrass keep his mind on mathematics. 

Today in Part 2, we continue this tale, largely gleaned from E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Weierstrass, Sonja’s Mentor. Bell described Karl Weierstrass’s evidently well-rounded youth: “He devoted his great bodily strength and his lightning dexterity and his keen mind almost exclusively to fencing and the mellow sociability that is induced by nightly and liberal indulgence in honest German beer. What a shocking example for ant-eyed Ph.D.’s who shrink from a spell of school-teaching lest their dim lights be dimmed forever!” 

Weierstrass’s eventual fame in mathematics came in establishing the soundness of calculus, the analysis of motion initially developed a century earlier by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. 

Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstrass, 1815–1897, German mathematician.

As noted in Wikipedia, “Despite leaving university without a degree, he studied mathematics and trained as a school teacher, eventually teaching mathematics, physics, botany, and gymnastics. He later received an honorary doctorate and became professor of mathematics in Berlin.”

Today, Weierstrass is known as “the father of analysis.” He met that charming young lady with the large and floppy hat in 1870. 

Kowaleski Encounters Other Giants of Science. In 1869, Sonja studied elliptic functions at the University of Heidelberg, where she also attended physics lectures of Gustav Kirchhoff (c.f., his laws of electrical circuits, spectroscopy, and thermochemistry) and Hermann Helmholtz (optics, acoustics, and thermodynamics). Sonja also met chemist Robert Bunsen (he, of the laboratory Bunsen burner).

Gustav Kirchhof, left, and Robert Bunsen. I have been unable to determine whether Kirchhoff was slight of stature or Bunsen particularly large.


A Bunsen/Kowaleski tale. Bell wrote that Bunsen “had proclaimed for years that no woman, and especially no Russian woman, would ever be permitted to profane the masculine sanctity of his laboratory. One of Sonja’s Russian girl friends, desiring ardently to study chemistry in Bunsen’s laboratory, and having been thrown out herself, prevailed upon Sonja to try her power of persuasion on the crusty chemist. Leaving her hat at home, Sonja interviewed Bunsen.”

Recall those marvelous blue eyes.

Bell continued, “He was only too charmed to accept Sonja’s friend as a student in his laboratory. After she left, he woke up to what she had done to him.”

Bell wrote, “Some two or three years later, on a visit to Heidelberg, Weierstrass learned from Bunsen—a crabbed bachelor—that Sonja was ‘a dangerous woman.’ Weierstrass enjoyed his friend’s terror hugely, as Bunsen at the time was unaware that Sonja had been receiving frequent private lessons from Weierstrass for over two years.”

I like to imagine Sonja didn’t bother with her large and floppy hat anymore. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Bob DuBois
    October 19, 2020

    You refer to Ms. Kowaleski as Sonja, yet in her photo she is listed as Sofia. How and when did the name change come about?

    • simanaitissays
      October 19, 2020

      Hi, Bob,
      It’s a matter of “also known as,” compounded by Russian/German/English. Apparently her birth name is Russian Sofia, but she later went by Sonja, as she appeared in Bell and Wikipedia.

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