Women in Math: Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

Wikipedia / Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Wikipedia / Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Amalie Emmy Noether was a 19th century mathematician from Germany who made major contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.

As a girl, Emmy Noether didn’t stand out as particularly clever or special. She was near-sighted, and spoke with a lisp. She was taught to cook and clean, just as all the other girls at the time, but didn’t particularly excel at either of those things. There wasn’t much to indicate that she would later be described as “the most influential woman mathematician”.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Noether was ready to work as a professor of pure mathematics, but women were pretty much excluded from academic positions at the time. To keep going with her studies, Noether worked for free for several years, and lectured under a male professor’s name, David Hilbert. One faculty member objected to her teaching, exclaiming “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 which Hilbert replied, “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission. After all, we are a university, not a bath house.”

It was during these years that she published possibly her biggest achievement, Noether’s Theorem. The theorem states that every conservation law is linked to a symmetry of nature. For example, the symmetry of time is linked to the conservation of energy. This means that no matter when you perform an experiment, if all conditions are the same, the result will be the same every time. This makes sense if you think about all the times you’ve ever thrown a ball in your life. If the conditions were the same, it didn’t matter if it was day or night, or 10 minutes or 10 years ago, the ball should have acted exactly the same way.  Other examples include the symmetry of space being linked the the conversation of momentum, and the symmetry of reflection is linked to parity. Noether’s Theorem has been described as "one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in guiding the development of modern physics, possibly on a par with the Pythagorean theorem", and is still widely used by physicists today.

And now to end with my favorite story of Emmy Noether. Once during a lecture, utterly absorbed in a discussion of mathematics, Noether "gesticulated wildly" as she ate and "spilled her food constantly and wiped it off from her dress, completely unperturbed", and by the end of the two hours her hair was in complete disarray from her excitement. Two female students approached her during the break to express their concern, but they were unable to break through her lively discussion of mathematics with the other students.

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Jade Tan-Holmes

Jade Tan-Holmes is a Science Communicator making videos about physics, math and computer science. You can find her on youtube and on twitter.

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