Sunday, March 30, 2014

Emmy Noether: Mathematician, Theorist, Physicist, Inspiring Woman

I will be writing a series about the Top Ten Most Influential Women in Physics. First, we will highlight Emmy Noether.

Amalie "Emmy" Noether

In 1935, Albert Einstein wrote an eloquent letter to the New York Times to commemorate the life of Emmy Noether and stated: "In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began." Read the full text of his letter here

Noether's contributions to physics (through mathematics and theory) greatly impact the field of physics today. In a New York Times article entitled "The Mighty Mathematician You've Never Heard of," journalist Natalie Angier writes: "She invented a theorem that united with magisterial concision two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether's theorem, as it is now called, as important as Einstein's theory of relativity; it undergirds much of today's vanguard research in physics, including the hunt for the almighty Higgs boson." 

Emmy Noether faced significant hurdles to her success--she was a female in a Germany with universities that often did not accept female students, let alone hire female researchers and professors. And later, during the Nazi party's rise to power, being Jewish became a dangerous identity. 

According to the Association for Women in Mathematics, her exile from Germany resulted in the creation of a circle of dedicated and loyal students at her new university, similar to the network of devoted learners she'd built in Germany: "Forced out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933, Emmy Noether came to Bryn Mawr College, where she soon collected many students and colleagues around her." Sadly, less than two years after she immigrated to the United States and took up a post at Bryn Mawr college, she passed away too young at age 53.

Despite these obstacles, during her lifetime Noether published mathematics papers on topics such as ring theory and abstract algebra. Yes, she was a brilliant mathematician, but she was also a rare thinker and theorist; her ideas relating to time and energy and the application of her equations had ramifications for everyday topics (like riding a bike) and furthered our understanding of the physical universe.

 Today, scientists and journalists are bringing new life to memory of Emmy Noether (see links below). As Einstein wrote in 1935, "...the fruits of their endeavors are the most valuable contributions which one generation can make to its successors." Today, we see the fruits of her endeavors in the impact on her successors in the field of physics; her work is being applied in many ways in diverse areas across the field of physics. 

Learn more about Emmy Noether:

The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality by Dave Goldberg

Association for Women in Mathematics

Read this excellent article in the New York Times: “The Mighty Mathematician You’ve Never Heard of” by Natalie Angier, March 26, 2012. 
The Unrecognized Genius of Emmy Noether” by Ransom Stephens. You can watch Stephens’ lecture here 

In his letter about Noether, Albert Einstein touched on the topic of true innovators: "...there is, fortunately, a minority composed of those who recognize early in their lives the most beautiful and satisfying experiences open to humankind are not derived from the outside, but are bound up with the development of the individual’s own feeling, thinking and acting. The genuine artists, investigators and thinkers have always been persons of this kind. However inconspicuously the life of these individuals runs its course, none the less the fruits of their endeavors are the most valuable contributions which one generation can make to its successors."

Read the full text of Einstein's letter

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