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Mathematician Emmy Noether Should Be Your Hero

She revolutionized mathematics, and then was forgotten because she was a woman

Emmy Noether, mathematical genius (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Albert Einstein is a household name. Emmy Noether? Never heard of her.

Amalie Emmy Noether, born on this day in 1882, has been called a “creative mathematical genius.” She battled sexism throughout her career and just, frankly, loved math—something not many of us can say about ourselves. 

Working at a time when physics and mathematics were transforming, Noether’s best-remembered work on mathematical constants drew on Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity, which completely changed those disciplines. It’s known today as Noether’s theorem.

“What the revolutionary theorem says, in cartoon essence, is the following,” writes Natalie Angier for The New York Times: “Wherever you find some sort of symmetry in nature, some predictability or homogeneity of parts, you’ll find lurking in the background a corresponding conservation—of momentum, electric charge, energy or the like.” Among its many other implications, this theory helps explain why bicycles stay up. It also unites radically different physical concepts—time and heat, for example—in a way that allows physicists to explain how things happen.

Einstein called her a genius. So why do we remember him but not her? Gender is a big part of it, writes Brad Plumer for Vox. “As a young woman, she wasn’t allowed to formally attend university,” he writes. But Noether clearly felt she was born to math: she talked her way into auditing courses at the University of Erlangen, where her father also taught mathematics.  

Although she technically wasn’t allowed to earn a degree, Plumer writes, her exam results were so good that the university gave her one. She moved on to graduate school at another university before returning to Erlangen for her doctorate, which was awarded in 1907, when she was 24.

“Noether’s brilliance was obvious to all who worked with her,” Angier writes, “and her male mentors repeatedly took up her cause, seeking to find her a teaching position—better still, one that paid.”

This was the thing. Noether had proved herself to be an incredibly good mathematician, whose work also gained the notice of such mathematical luminaries as David Hilbert and Felix Klein. Universities were (grudgingly) willing to allow her to get an education. They were even willing to allow her to teach, as she did at Erlangen after getting her doctorate, writes EpiGeneSys, an EU-funded science website. But they were not willing to allow her to be a professor, or to pay her.

“During the seven years she spent teaching at the university’s Mathematical Institute, she also published six papers that are considered to be classics and developed an international reputation—all without pay, position or title,” writes EpiGeneSys. 

Then in 1915, as World War I raged, fellow mathematicians at the University of Göttingen wanted her to join their department. Citing a 1908 Prussian law forbidding women to lecture at universities, the administration (grudgingly) allowed her to lecture under a male colleague’s name. Even that was too much for some, writes EpiGeneSys: “One academic complained, ‘What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?’”

She was eventually able to lecture under her own name, but she was never a full professor. Then in 1933 when the Nazis rose to power, Noether, who was Jewish, had to leave her job. She finished her career teaching at Bryn Mawr in the United States. But Noether's second theorem was not forthcoming. At the height of her mathematical powers, doing new work on abstract algebra, Noether died after an operation on an ovarian cyst. It was 1935. She was 53.

Noether “lived for math and cared nothing for housework or possessions,” writes Angier. She left little behind when she died except for her work, which remains, in the words of one physicist who spoke to the Times, “the backbone on which all of modern physics is built.” She got a Google Doodle on her 133rd birthday, but that scarcely seems fair compensation for her genius. 

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