Committee Picks: Nothing Stopped Sophie (Review)

Posted by on Apr 4, 2019 in Featured Titles, News | No Comments

The following review of 2019 Mathical Award Winner Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe was submitted by Mathical Selection Committee member Betsy Bird.

This is truly the Golden Hour for picture book biographies. Walk your local library or bookstore’s shelves to find titles celebrating people in too-little-lauded fields. Rocket scientists. Costume designers. Poets. And, once in a very great while, mathematicians. When I look at Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain, I don’t just see a picture book biography of a female mathematician from the 1800s. I see possibility. I see heroism. I see remarkable strength in the face of opposition. Basically, I see a story more kids should really know (and adults too, while we’re at it).

Outwardly, there was little about Sophie Germain that would have raised any alerts that she was different from other girls living in 18th century France. Her father owned a fabric shop and she helped out. She’d stay up late reading. But rather than fiction or religious texts, Sophie liked to read and study math. Over time, Sophie got her math education under a male pseudonym. All that began to change when she witnessed an experiment involving the effect of vibrations on sand. When the Academy of Sciences offered a reward of 3,000 francs to anyone who could predict patterns of vibration with mathematical equations, it was Sophie that tried (and failed) and tried (and almost got it) and tried . . . and got it! Thanks to her work, we have tall buildings and powerful bridges. Endmatter in this book includes further notes on Sophie’s life, a bibliography, information on the effects of vibrations, and notes from the author and artist on their research and work.

“Part of what Bardoe does so well here is explain why Sophie’s work is important to us today, above and beyond the heroism of her own passions.”

Part of what Bardoe does so well here is explain why Sophie’s work is important to us today, above and beyond the heroism of her own passions. If Sophie had worked as a mathematician and written equations, that could be enough. Yet as it stands, her accomplishments, above and beyond becoming the first woman to win a grand prize from the Royal Academy of Sciences, are visible in our tallest buildings and our bridges. That’s a concrete thing to tie to a hitherto little-lauded figure. Meanwhile, McClintock integrates numbers into the text seamlessly. They are both a design element as well as a practical method of highlighting important concepts. From moments lost in daydreams of mathematics while surrounded by party chatter in a busy drawing room, to making vibrations in the street with her feet, the math appears in the air itself, like a living substance she breathes in.

Biographies of female mathematicians are in a funny little place, these days. They’re out there, sure thing, but they’re almost entirely limited to math as it applies to computer science. You can understand why. With the rise of computers, women have seen their own opportunities grow and flourish. As a result we get women involved in the earliest days of programming (Ada Lovelace) as well as women with more contemporary flair (Grace Hopper and the mathematicians of Hidden Figures). Still, where’s the story about a girl who loved math and made a difference in a way that didn’t involve computers? Together, Bardoe and McClintock have provided just that. Bardoe had to turn a life into a story. McClintock had to make the invisible (mental mathematical equations) visible. That they not only succeeded but triumphed is to be lauded and loved. And whether or not they already like math or science, a lot of boys and girls are going to love this book.

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain
By Cheryl Bardoe, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018
2019 Mathical Award Winner, Grades K-2

Mathical selection committee member Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird is the collection development manager at the Evanston Public Library system, former youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library, and reviewer for Kirkus and The New York Times. Find her at A Fuse #8 Production or on Twitter @FuseEight.