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Emmy Noether in the News

[Bryn Mawr College Archives]

NYT science writer Natalie Angier devoted her column in today’s science section to one of the twentieth century’s great mathematicians, Emmy Noether. Angier is a superb writer. I was thrilled that she chose one of my favorite mathematicians to write about, and I urge you to read her piece. But I have to confess that Angier didn’t succeed in conveying Noether’s greatness. Angier points out early on that “Noether was a highly prolific mathematician, publishing groundbreaking papers, sometimes under a man’s name, in rarefied fields of abstract algebra and ring theory.” A sentence later, Angier moves on to Noether’s contributions to physics, never to return to those rarefied fields.

I get it. I get that if you choose to write a short piece for the general public about the mathematician who laid the foundations for modern algebra, and who also happened to prove a theorem fundamental to modern physics, you’ll shy away from the algebra and head toward the physics. In doing so, however, you will miss the opportunity to describe her impact on mathematics itself.

In the fall of 2008, Princeton University Press published The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. I bought a copy when it came out, and wrote about it when Ron’s View was just a month old, observing that

Part VI, Mathematicians, contains 96 short biographies of mathematicians, arranged chronologically by birth. The few I’ve read were superb, even given the severe space constraints. The first and last mathematicians treated are Pythagoras (born ca. 569 B.C.E.), about whose life nothing is known, and Bourbaki (1935), who didn’t even have a life. Two of the ninety-six are women: Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850) and Emmy Noether (1882).

In quoting this, I wish to highlight how special Noether was, one of just two women sufficiently important in their mathematical contributions (through the early twentieth century; the situation would look much different now) to be included. I fear that Angier has not given a rounded picture of why.

Yet, Angier does succeed in conveying how admired Noether was by her contemporaries. David Hilbert was the leading mathematician of the era, based in Göttingen, the leading mathematical center. Angier tells the story of his efforts to hire Noether:

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

“I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her,” Hilbert said indignantly to the administration at Göttingen, where he sought to have Noether appointed as the equivalent of an associate professor. “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.” Hilbert failed to make his case, so instead brought her on staff as a more or less permanent “guest lecturer”; and Noether, fittingly enough, later took up swimming at a men-only pool.

I taught a course on abstract algebra and ring theory this past winter for our math majors. The mathematician I most frequently mentioned was Emmy Noether. I concluded the course by giving an overview of her work (circa 1920) that, in effect, united number theory and the theory of smooth curves in one setting. She continues to be an inspiration, eighty years after her much too early death.

Categories: Biography, Math
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