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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (Grade 7)

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

The light glittered on the guests’ ornate clothing as Pietro Agnesi held up his hand for silence.

He boomed out, “I present to you my eldest daughter, the Walking Polyglot, Maria Gaetana Agnesi!”

Maria, standing outside, heard the applause crackle around the room. She closed her eyes briefly before going in. She had always hated these events, where her father gathered crowds to gawk at her knowledge and talents.

“Walking Polyglot” was, Maria had to admit, an accurate nickname for her; though only thirteen, she could already speak seven languages. Being born into a wealthy family had its advantages.

Maria knew that as a girl born in 1718 she was very fortunate to be able to get a complete education.

Along with languages, she studied philosophy, science, and other subjects, including her favorite: math.

But surely all this learning must be for some other purpose than winning applause!

Seven years later, Maria’s father finally let her stop performing. Maria plunged herself into a different project. She had twenty younger siblings and, as the eldest, she was expected to help with their education. Maria knew just what she wanted to do.

A whole new branch of mathematics – calculus – had been invented only a few decades earlier. Maria’s brothers wanted to learn it along with other kinds of math, but there was no textbook that could teach them. In Maria’s time, mathematical works were scattered over several different countries, written in several different languages. This was no problem for Maria! At last, she could combine her love of math and her talent for languages to create something worthwhile.

Maria set to work on a textbook that could take her brothers from arithmetic to calculus. The book started small, but it quickly grew. It was the very first textbook to combine the different kinds of work on calculus, and it would set the standard for calculus textbooks for years afterward.

Maria thought that mathematics was beautiful, and she wanted other people to think so too. So she wrote her book not in Latin, the ancient language that only scholars used, but in Italian, the language most people in her native Milan knew and loved.

Maria worked hard on her book for a long time. Ten years later, when Maria was thirty, it was finally complete. The book was called “Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth,” and it was over a thousand pages long. Due to Maria’s family wealth, she had the funds to publish both volumes of the book on the very best paper. As a finishing touch, she dedicated the book to the reigning monarch,
Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Along with sharing Maria’s name, the empress knew what it was like to be a rare woman in the spotlight.

After the book was published, a messenger arrived for Maria from Austria. He carried a box made of crystal – a thank-you gift from the empress. Maria opened it. Inside, a jeweled ring sparkled. Maria smiled; she had given something beautiful in the form of her book and had received something beautiful in turn.

When her father died in 1752, four years after her book was published, Maria decided to turn her life itself into something beautiful. She no longer had to teach her siblings, so she could decide what she wanted to do. A devout Catholic, Maria believed caring for others was very important. She chose to spend the rest of her life working for people who could not take care of themselves. She built a hospital and became director of a home welcoming the poor. In the end,she gave everything she had – even the empress’s presents – to help those less fortunate than herself.

When she died in 1799, Maria was poor in terms of money. But in terms of happiness, she was rich. She had found the purpose she had wanted for all her wealth and talents.

This piece was written by Lucy Henneker and is based on the life of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi.
1. 
Maria was called a walking polyglot. A polyglot is someone who
  1. is good at math.
  2. knows many languages.
  3. scores high on an IQ test.
  4. has a lot of brothers and sisters.
2. 
Why did Maria choose to write her textbook in Italian?
  1. She spoke Italian.
  2. She liked the academic language.
  3. She knew the empress would read it.
  4. She wanted it to be available to everyone.
3. 
What caused Maria to write her textbook? Choose all that apply.
  1. She had to help teach her siblings.
  2. She thought calculus was interesting.
  3. She could not find a calculus textbook.
  4. She was tired of performing for her father at parties.
  5. She wanted to do something to impress the empress.
4. 
How did Maria feel about mathematics?
  1. She thought it was hard to learn.
  2. She thought it was a beautiful language.
  3. She thought it was only for wealthy people.
  4. She thought it was going to change the world.
5. 
Which statement best describes Maria?
  1. She was a woman from a big family.
  2. She was a young girl who knew a lot of things.
  3. She was a caring woman who made a difference.
  4. She was a wealthy Italian woman who liked the spotlight.
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