March 23, 1882 – Birth of Emmy Noether – One of the Most Influential Mathematicians of All Time

Albert Einstein once commended Emmy Noether as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” The mathematician Norbert Wiener also lauded Noether as “the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort now living, and a scholar at least on the plane of Madame Curie.”

Because she was a woman, however, she was, and remains, largely unknown in spite of her accomplishments.

Portrait of Emmy Noether, around 1900, via Wikipedia

Emmy (a nickname for Amalie), was born on this day in history in Bavaria, Germany to Jewish parents. In 1809 the State of Baden passed the Tolerance Edict which required Jews to adopt Germanic names. Emmy’s grandfather, Elias Samuel, chose the surname Nöther, becoming Elias Nöther. (Her father used the form Noether, a transliteration of the umlaut.)

As a tribute to her on the San Diego Supercomputer Center website reports, Noether, who received her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1907, worked at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen, without pay or title, from 1908 to 1915. In 1915 she joined the Mathematical Institute in Göttingen and started working with prominent mathematicians on Einstein’s general relativity theory. In 1918 she proved two theorems that were basic for both general relativity and elementary particle physics. One is still known as “Noether’s Theorem.”

But she could not join the faculty at Göttingen because of her gender. She could only lecture as an “assistant” until Albert Einstein along with David Hilbert, probably the twentieth century’s most outstanding mathematician, interceded for her. In 1919 she was finally allowed to lecture, but without a salary. [Her father supported her financially.]

In 1922 she was appointed “associate professor without tenure” and began to receive a small stipend.

In 1928-29 she was a visiting professor at the University of Moscow. In 1930, she taught at Frankfurt. The International Mathematical Congress in Zurich asked her to give a plenary lecture in 1932, and in the same year she was awarded the prestigious Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize in mathematics.

In 1933, however, she was denied permission to teach in Germany by the Nazi government. She accepted a guest professorship at Bryn Mawr College and also lectured at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The guest position was extended, but in April 1935 she had surgery to remove a uterine tumor and died from a postoperative infection.

Emmy Noether published over 40 papers in her brief lifetime. Among scientists, she is primarily known for the aforementioned “Noether’s Theorem,” which describes a fundamental property of the universe and helped eliminate objections to Einstein’s theory of general relativity. As Richard Webb in “New Scientist” points out, “this statement is a crucial underpinning of physical laws, from those that govern the rotation of a wheel or the orbits of planets around stars, to the intricate mathematical frameworks of general relativity, quantum physics and particle physics.”

Emmy Noether, circa 1930, via Wikipedia

Noether is also known for her groundbreaking work in abstract algebra. You can read further details about her work here.

She has been recognized by mathematicians and physicists since her death, but the general public still has no idea who she was, whereas lesser minds, who are men, live in renown.


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