Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Knowing Emmy Noether

I can embarrass myself simply by sitting alone in a chair reading a book. Here's what happened: Physicist Benjamin Schumacher was discussing the concept of symmetry when he mentioned one "Emmy Noether" with what seemed to be a reverence usually reserved for likes of David Hilbert or Albert Einstein. Who the hell was this Emmy Noether?

Well, it turns out that Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was only the greatest woman mathematician in the history of the world.


No less that Hilbert and Einstein called her the most important woman in the history of mathematics, and mathematician Norbert Wiener said she was "the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived." Her work on what is called "Noether's Theorem," involving differential invariants in the calculus of variations, has been called "one of the most important math theorems ever proved in guiding the development of modern physics" and "a cornerstone in general relativity."

Schumacher was awed by her 1915 proof that every symmetry in the laws of physics leads to a conservation law, and every conservation law arises from a symmetry of the laws of physics - a principle, he said, invaluable to this day.

But to the math folks, she's more famous for her theories of algebraic invariants and number fields that "transformed the face of algebra." I checked Noether out on line, and quickly was overwhelmed by page after page of discussion so far above my head it might as well as been hiding behind the moon.

Noether received treatment typical for a woman scientist of her time. She worked for many years without pay, and never received a full professorship in her native Germany. In 1933, because she was a Jew, the Nazi government jackbooted her out of the university and she moved to the United States with the help of Einstein and others. She took a position at Bryn Mawr College and lectured at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, continuing to produce ground-breaking work. She died at 53 after an operation for an ovarian cyst.

I probably shouldn't be beating myself up for never having heard of Noether. After all, my math training ended after first-year algebra.

But the "most important woman mathematician in history?" And I didn't know her from Josephine Blow? Arrgh!

1 comment:

  1. You think your embarrassed over not knowing Emmy Noether. Well not only have I not sadly never heard of her, before now I also have no idea who Josephine Blow is! Clearly my education has failed me.

    Could she be the topic of your next blog? :)