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Beyond the Limit

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Beyond the Limit, a novel researched for more than ten years by mathematician and educator Joan Spicci, is the true story of Sofya Kovalevskaya’s

remarkable personal journey, from the constricted life of a teenage girl in St. Petersburg to the triumph of becoming the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics and join the ranks of Europe’s great mathematicians of the nineteenth century.

For more than one hundred years, Kovalevskaya’s struggle has inspired women of all nations to fight for educational opportunities equal to those available to men. But while she is known for the science and mathematics Opportunity Days sponsored in her name at major universities, the full drama and power of her life has never been told as it now unfolds in this thoroughly researched novel.

Based on Kovalevskaya’s own writings, and many other primary sources, the story of her life plays out against a panorama of the turbulent, intellectually challenging 1860s and 1870s, as it follows a brilliant, complex woman on a quest that seems almost impossible to imagine, more than a century later. Friends with some of the intellectual giants of her time, ranging from Dostoevsky to Darwin, she was the equal of them all, as chronicled in this extraordinary work.

In the Russia of the 1860s, young women did as their fathers bid them, and after marriage was arranged, they did what their husbands told them to do. But Sofya Krukovskaya was different. Born to a family in which science and mathematics were already part of its heritage, Sofya takes every opportunity to learn more about mathematics in tutoring sessions. But her tutors know that if she is to realize her potential, she must study at a university. In order to do that, she lies to her family and makes a marriage of convenience with archaeologist Vladimir Kovalevsky, enabling her and her sister Anya to leave Russia and seek education at a German university.

However, leaving Russia is only the first hurdle she must vault to pursue her dream of becoming Europe’s first woman mathematician. When she applies for admission, she is refused by stubbornly prejudiced university officials, forcing her to study covertly with the great mathematician Karl Weierstrass, under whose guidance she is at last able to gain her doctorate.

Very close to her sister Anya, a talented writer whose revolutionary fervor takes her to the powder keg of the Paris Commune of 1871, more than once Sofya has to forsake her own goals to save Anya from ruin, and even death.

Married in name only for many years, Sofya and Vladimir have a complex, volatile relationship. Loving each other, they’re forced by the needs of their careers to withstand long separations and other trials. Across Europe, through tragedy and finally triumph, their story is richly told against the backdrop of history.

Mathematician and educator Joan Spicci’s compelling narrative accurately documents Sofya’s educational and professional struggle, in Beyond the Limit.

This fascinating, intimate portrait of Sofya Kovalevskaya’s life confronts issues of women’s rights and feminism that continue to face women who pursue careers in the sciences in the twenty-first century.

Book Details

  • Forge Books
  • On Sale: 08-24-2002