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Emmy Noether

mathematician

Dates: March 23, 1882 - April 14, 1935
Also known as: Amalie Noether, Emily Noether, Amelie Noether

Born in Germany and named Amalie Emmy Noether, she was known as Emmy. Her father was a mathematics professor at the University of Erlangen and her mother was from a wealthy family.

Emmy Noether studied arithmetic and languages but was not permitted -- as a girl -- to enroll in the college preparatory school, the gymnasium. Her graduation qualified her to teach French and English in girls' schools, apparently her career intention -- but then she changed her mind and decided she wanted to study mathematics at the university level.

University of Erlangen

To enroll in a university, she had to get permission of the professors to take an entrance exam -- she did and she passed, after sitting in on mathematics lectures at the University of Erlangen. She was then allowed to audit courses -- first at the University of Erlangen and then the University of Göttingen, neither of which would permit a woman to attend classes for credit. Finally, in 1904, the University of Erlangen decided to permit women to enroll as regular students, and Emmy Noether returned there. Her dissertation in algebraic math earned her a doctorate summa cum laude in 1908.

For seven years, Noether worked at the University of Erlangen without any salary, sometimes acting as a substitute lecturer for her father when he was ill. In 1908 she was invited to join the Circolo Matematico di Palermo and in 1909 to join the German Mathematical Society -- but she still could not obtain a paying position at a University in Germany.

Göttingen

In 1915, Emmy Noether's mentors, Felix Klein and David Hilbert, invited her to join them at the Mathematical Institute in Göttingen, again without compensation. There, she pursued important mathematical work that confirmed key parts of the general theory of relativity.

Hilbert continued to work to get Noether accepted as a faculty member at Göttingen, but he was unsuccessful against the cultural and official biases against women scholars. He was able to allow her to lecture -- in his own courses, and without salary. In 1919 she won the right to be a privatdozent -- she could teach students, and they would pay her directly, but the university did not pay her anything. In 1922, the University gave her a position as an adjunct professor with a small salary and no tenure or benefits.

Emmy Noether was a popular teacher with the students. She was seen as warm and enthusiastic. Her lectures were participatory, demanding that students help work out the mathematics being studied.

Emmy Noether's work in the 1920s on ring theory and ideals was foundational in abstract algebra. Her work earned her enough recognition that she was invited as a visiting professor in 1928-1929 at the University of Moscow and in 1930 at the University of Frankfurt.

America

Though she was never able to gain a regular faculty position at Göttingen, she was one of many Jewish faculty members who were purged by the Nazis in 1933. In America, the Emergency Committee to Aid Displaced German Scholars obtained for Emmy Noether an offer of a professorship at Bryn Mawr College in America, and they paid, with the Rockefeller Foundation, her first year's salary. The grant was renewed for two more years in 1934. This was the first time that Emmy Noether was paid a full professor's salary and accepted as a full faculty member.

But her success was not to last long. In 1935, she developed complications from an operation to remove a uterine tumor, and she died shortly after, on April 14.

After World War II ended, the University of Erlangen honored her memory, and in that city a coed gymnasium specializing in math was named for her. Her ashes are buried near Bryn Mawr's Library.

Quote

If one proves the equality of two numbers a and b by showing first that "a is less than or equal to b" and then "a is greater than or equal to b", it is unfair, one should instead show that they are really equal by disclosing the inner ground for their equality.

About Emmy Noether, by Lee Smolin:

The connection between symmetries and conservation laws is one of the great discoveries of twentieth century physics . But I think very few non-experts will have heard either of it or its maker - Emily Noether, a great German mathematician. But it is as essential to twentieth century physics as famous ideas like the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light.

It is not difficult to teach Noether's theorem, as it is called; there is a beautiful and intuitive idea behind it. I've explained it every time I've taught introductory physics. But no textbook at this level mentions it. And without it one does not really understand why the world is such that riding a bicycle is safe.

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Print Bibliography

  • Dick, Auguste.Emmy Noether: 1882-1935. 1980. ISBN: 0817605193

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