Researchers are a famously private lot, but few could match in the depths of her perverse and unmerited obscurity the 20th-century mathematical genius Amalie Noether. Emmy Noether’s theorem united two pillars of physics: balance in nature and the general laws of conservation. Albert Einstein called her the most ‘significant’ and ‘creative’ female mathematician of all time, and others of her contemporaries were willing to drop the change by sex. She invented a theorem that united with magisterial concision two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the common laws of conservation. Some contemplate Noether’s theorem, as it’s now called, as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity it undergirds significantly of today’s vanguard research in science, like the search for the almighty Higgs boson.
Yet Noether herself remains utterly unknown, not just to the general public, but to many members of the medical community as well. When Dave Goldberg, a physicist at Drexel University who has discussing her work, recently took a little ‘Noether poll’ of several dozen peers, students and online followers, he was taken aback by the results. “Surprisingly few could say exactly who she was or why she was important,” he explained. “A few others knew her name but couldn’t remember what she’d done, and the majority had never heard of her.”
Noether (pronounced NER-ter) was born in Erlangen, Germany, 130 years back this month. So it’s a good time to counter the serious neglect and observe the life and work of a brilliant theorist whose unshakable number love and irrationally strong sense of humor helped her overcome severe handicaps ‘ first, being feminine in Germany at a time when most German universities didn’t take female students or use female professors, and then being a Jewish pacifist in the middle of the Nazis’ rise to power. Through everything, Noether was a very respected mathematician, writing revolutionary papers, often under a man’s title, in rarefied areas of abstract algebra and band theory. And when she applied her equations to the world around her, she discovered some of its basic principles, like how time and energy are related, and why it’s, as the physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute put it, “that riding a bike is safe.”
Ransom Stephens, a novelist and physicist who has lectured extensively on Noether, said, “You could make a powerful case that her theorem is the anchor on which most of modern physics is built.” Noether came from a statistical family. Her father was a distinguished mathematics teacher at the schools of Heidelberg and Erlangen, and her brother Fritz won some renown as an applied mathematician. Emmy, as she was known throughout her life, started off studying English, French and piano ‘ subjects more socially acceptable for a girl’ but her interests soon considered math. Barred from matriculating previously at the University of Erlangen, Emmy simply audited all of the classes, and she finished up this well on her final exams that she was given the equivalent of a bachelor’s stage. She proceeded to graduate school at the University of GAAttingen before time for the University of Erlangen, where she received her doctorate summa cum laude.
She met many of the leading mathematicians of the day, including David Hilbert and Felix Klein, who did for the bottle what August Ferdinand MAAbius had done for the strip. Noether’s elegance was clear to all who caused her, and her cause was repeatedly taken up by her male mentors, trying to find her a teaching position better still, one which paid. “I don’t note that the gender of the choice is an argument against her,” Hilbert mentioned indignantly to the administration at GAAttingen, where he sought to have Noether employed as the equivalent of an associate professor. “After all, we’re a college, not just a bathhouse.”
Hilbert did not make his case, so alternatively brought her on staff as a more or less lasting ‘guest lecturer’ and Noether, fittingly enough, later took up swimming at a men-only pool. At GAAttingen, she pursued her desire for mathematical invariance, the study of figures that can be altered in various ways and still remain constant. In the connection between a star and its earth, for example, the shape and radius of the planetary orbit may change, but the gravitational attraction conjoining one to the other remains the same and there’s your invariance.