The Greatness of Emmy Noether

By Ransom Stephens You've heard of Albert Einstein but have you heard of Emmy Noether? Emmy Noether made perhaps the most important discovery in the encyclopedia of human understanding (for a play-by-play description of Noether’s theorem hit this link). Emmy Noether was a mathematician and a mentor of Albert Einstein. She worked alongside and earned the admiration of some of the greatest mathematicians of her time: David Hilbert, Hermann Weyl, Herman Minkowski, Felix Klein, etc. But since Emmy Noether was female she traveled a much different road than her peers. Amalie Noether was born in the Kaiser’s Germany to a Jewish family. Everyone called her Emmy. In 1900, after receiving her Teaching Certificate – an acceptable intellectual achievement for a properly demur young lady – she decided to study mathematics. Because she lacked a ychromosome, she was not permitted to enroll at the university. In fact, the Academic Senate of the University of Erlangen recorded that “allowing coeducation would overthrow all academic order.” The outstanding theme of Emmy’s life is that she pursued her goals with single-minded determination and not much fuss. We all know that it is possible to get as good an education as we desire by simply working through the great texts in libraries and attending lectures at the finest universities. There are plenty of empty seats in classes on Algebraic Theory and it would be a rare instructor who would turn away a warm body with an agile mind. Most of us, though, won’t pursue an education without the lure of a diploma to document our achievements.

Since Emmy couldn’t register for classes, she attended them without registering. Three years later, Emmy was permitted to take the grand exams at the end of the degree program. Of course she excelled, self-motivation of this order is rarely oriented toward unattainable goals. She then applied to the graduate program and was one of the first women in Germany accepted in an academic graduate program and, in 1907, was one of the first women to be awarded a Ph.D. The natural path of a pure mathematician is to pursue academic research but, of course, the very idea of women faculty at a major German university would not be entertained for some years. Emmy responded the way she had as a student: she did mathematical research anyway. Her Ph.D. dissertation had generated the interest of the faculty at the University of Goettingen which, at the time, was the center of the mathematical universe. Shortly after her parents died, she took an unpaid position there and pursued her interests. She taught as a guest lecturer and lived on her small inheritance – naturally, her older brother inherited the lion’s share of her parents’ modest wealth. Emmy developed a unique style of teaching. Rather than deliver passive lectures to a silent audience, she would propose a mathematical question and invite students to propose solutions. Unorthodox, to be sure, but soon Emmy could be seen around campus trailed by a group of students that would come to be known as “Noether’s boys.” Another problem Emmy faced in developing her academic career: women could not submit papers to the academic journals. As Emmy’s life is evidence of the power of resilience, it is also a testament to the simple pursuit of one’s goals without care for recognition and reward.

What would come to be known as Noether’s Theorem was published in 1916. Noether’s Theorem altered our understanding of the Laws of Nature. Prior to 1916, Newton’s laws of motion (including the alterations required by Einstein’s relativity) and the laws of thermodynamics and electrodynamics were recognized as empirical facts, expressions of how things work with no indication of why. By showing that the behavior of matter and forces is dictated by the geometry of the space and time that they occupy, Noether’s Theorem changed the way we consider the essential fabric of reality. That is, Noether’s theorem ties what had been recognized as simple fact, as “how things are,” to symmetries in nature. For example, that the way things behave does not change with time requires the first law of thermodynamics: That the energy of a system can neither be created nor destroyed but can merely change form. Similarly, that the total electric charge in a system cannot change without input/output from outside the system, results from an arcane mathematical symmetry (that the behavior of a system of charges is not altered by an overall phase shift). Noether’s Theorem still plays a crucial role at the cutting edge of physics research. The “Standard Model of Particle Physics” rests on a foundation built of Emmy Noether’s work. The two major problems being addressed at particle accelerators right now are posed, at their most primordial level, in terms of Noether’s Theorem. The search for the Higgs Boson at CERN is predicated on the theory that particles attain their masses by virtue of a broken symmetry in empty space (called the “Vacuum Expectation Value”). Similarly, the fact that universe contains so much more matter than it does antimatter

seems to rest on the experimental observation that the laws of nature differ when we swap left and right. Among mathematicians, Emmy Noether is recognized along with Newton, Gauss, Fourier, Leibnitz, as one of the greatest of all time for her work on noncommutative algebra, group theory, hypercomplex numbers, and her Theory of Ideals in Rings. But few people outside mathematics and physics departments have heard of her. In 1919, shortly after the armistice of World War One, Emmy was nominated for a low-level instructor position called a Privatdozent but the History and Philosophy faculty opposed her: “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?” To this, Professor David Hilbert replied: “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as Privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bath house” – which has come to be known as the Bathhouse Quote. Amalie (Emmy) Noether was a mathematician first and foremost, but she was also a liberal pacifist and a Jew. This was an unfortunate combination in Germany of the 1930s. She was one of the first dozen professors to be fired by the Nazis. Her brother, who was also a mathematician, accepted a position in Russia and urged her to join him. Instead, Albert Einstein convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to match a grant from the Emergency Committee to Aid Displaced German Scholars and Emmy was granted a one year instructor position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. At 51 years of age, Emmy accepted her first official, paid, academic position. The next year, Einstein had to jump through the same political hoops to have the position renewed. Emmy’s years at Bryn Mawr were probably the happiest of her life. In 1933, Emmy died of complications after surgery to treat uterine cancer.

That Emmy Noether has never garnered the recognition of her male peers is a tragedy of culture. That Emmy Noether’s passion was never daunted nor her achievements slowed by cultural obstacles and injustices is a testimony to her spirit.

(The author, Ransom Stephens, based the character “Emmy Nutter” in his novel ,The God Patent, on Emmy Noether. He says, “If Emmy Noether had grown up in Southern California in the 1980s rather than the Kaiser’s Germany, she’d have been a lot like my Emmy Nutter.” Contact him: ransom [at] ransomstephens [dot] com) You are welcome to republish the text of this article without needing further permission, provided that you attribute the work to its author, Ransom Stephens

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