Olga Ladyzhenskaya: Four things you need to know about the influential mathematician who overcame personal tragedy

Russian mathematician Olga Ladyzhenskay left behind her an influential body of work, which continues to impact fields such as weather forecasting to this day.

For that reason, Google Doodle commissioned a special artwork paying tribute to Ladyzhenskay’s life and legacy on Thursday, marking would have been her 97th birthday.

Born in Kologriv, Soviet Russia on 7 March, 1922, Ladyzhenskay overcame both personal and political obstacles throughout her career, which saw her author more than 250 papers.

Here are four things to know about the influential scientist:

1. Her family ties initially kept her from pursuing her education 

Ladyzhenskay’s father, Aleksandr Ivanovich Ladyzhenskii, is credited with having kickstarted his daughter’s interest in mathematics from a young age.

Ladyzhenskii is believed to have died in October 1937, when his daughter was 15, in a Soviet torture chamber after being arrested by Stalinist authorities, according to a mathematics history archive kept by the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Although she graduated from secondary school with excellent grades, Ladyzhenskii was kept from enrolling at Leningrad State University because her father was considered an “enemy of the nation”, per the archive.

She eventually taught at an orphanage and at a secondary school before entering Moscow State University in 1943 and later earned her doctorate from Leningrad State University.

2. She had to overcome the political and social unrest of her time

Throughout her life, Ladyzhenskay had to work against political disturbances to pursue her research.

While she completed her thesis in 1951, it could not be published until 1953, following the death of Joseph Stalin.

As the Communist rule came to a close in 1989, Ladyzhenskay, along with other Russian mathematicians had more freedom to travel.

Up until that point, Ladyzhenskay had been largely unable to venture beyond Eastern Europe, and had only once attended the International Congress of Mathematicians in Edinburgh.

She didn’t attend the event again until 1988.

Living under the Soviet regime also meant Ladyzhenskay was unable to meet other prominent scientists for years, as they were not allowed to visit the union.

3. Her work’s practical applications remain useful to this day

Ladyzhenskaya made valuable contributions to the field of fluid dynamics studies.

Her research continues to impact oceanography, cardiovascular science, aerodynamics, and weather forecasting.

‘’She was perhaps the premier worker on the Russian side,’’ Dr. Marshall Slemrod, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, told The New York Times when Ladyzhenskaya died at the age of 81 2004.

‘’If you believe your weather forecast, you have to solve the exact equations that she studied.’’ 

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4. She was perceived as a rebel

Although she lived under an oppressive regime, Ladyzhenskaya didn’t shy away from expressing her opinions on social matters, often to the detriment of her personal safety, according to the University of St Andrews.

As a lover of the arts, she got involved in the St Petersburg intellectual scene and befriended writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an outspoken critic of the Soviet union.

Ladyzhenskaya also became friends with poet Anna Akhmatova, whose work denounced Stalin’s regime.

The mathematician’s reputation as an independent spirit was captured by Dr Peter D Lax of New York University, who told The New York Times: ‘’She was also always a rebel and treated as one by the Soviet government.’’

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