Friday Hoyden: Emmy Noether

Emmy Noether was a brilliant mathematician in an age where women were not considered suitable to be either brilliant or mathematicians. She was also Jewish at a time of Nazism. Both her gender and her religion made it difficult for her to study and gain employment, despite many of her male colleagues supporting her and making efforts on her behalf. Today she is still largely unknown, even by many in the scientific and mathematical world, but her work changed the way those disciplines are studied and thought about.

Albert Einstein called her the most “significant” and “creative” female mathematician of all time, and others of her contemporaries were inclined to drop the modification by sex. She invented a theorem that united with magisterial concision two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether’s theorem, as it is now called, as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity; it undergirds much of today’s vanguard research in physics, including the hunt for the almighty Higgs boson. Yet Noether herself remains utterly unknown, not only to the general public, but to many members of the scientific community as well…Ransom Stephens, a physicist and novelist who has lectured widely on Noether, said, “You can make a strong case that her theorem is the backbone on which all of modern physics is built.”

New York Times, Natalie Angier 26.3.12

She was forced to flee Germany in 1933 and her contemporary Albert Einstein helped her find a post at Bryn Mawr University. Tragically, 18 months later, she died young at age 53 within a few days of having an operation on an ovarian cyst. Had she lived longer it is possible we might have known more about her, but you would think that her work would have spoken for her long before now.

H/T to the lovely @bluemilk on Twitter

Categories: Culture, culture wars, education, gender & feminism, history, law & order, religion, Science, social justice

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4 replies

  1. Does not surprise me in the least – my mother (b 1916) was castigated and humiliated by a (male) Mathematics teacher in High School. Apparently the only way a GIRL could get 100% in a Maths was by cheating…….., and in the face of a complete lack of evidence, he deducted enough marks to allow a boy to gain first place. Talk about affirmative action!
    Gae, in Callala Bay

  2. If you study group theory or classical physics at all, as I did, you’ll certainly find out about her. But here’s an interesting thing…
    Out of the four courses I did where she was mentioned, three were taught by men and one by a woman. All would give a quick bio of her (as they did with most other notable figures), but the men alone would always mention how she was not actually allowed to teach, because she was a woman, and had to lecture under the guise of auditing Hilbert’s sessions.
    There would always be some implication that mathematics and physics has always been oh-so-progressive, because, hey, we see the ideas and not the gender, and people like Hilbert fought the power for people like Noether! (See? No problems here! None whatsoever!)
    It also gave me the impression that it was the case for her whole life, and it was only when I bothered to read more that I found out that it was only for a part of her career (which, admittedly, covered her eponymous theorem).

  3. Jason, thanks for the bit extra, very interesting to see how she is referred to in lecture rooms.

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