Sunday, May 6, 2012

146: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emmy Noether

Dear Followers,

Today, I'd like to introduce you to Amelie (Emmy) Noether, who was born in Germany in 1882, and went on to be considered--by Albert Einstein, no less--as the most "significant" and "creative" female mathematician of all time.  Her Noether's Theorem is now considered as important as Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Emmy's father, Max Noether, was a distinguished mathematics professor at the University of Erlangen, and because of his health problems and disabilities, he often had her help him with research and lectures (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  Her mother was from a wealthy family in Cologne, and Emmy was the eldest of the family's four children as well as the only daughter. As a schoolgirl, she was enrolled in (and excelled at) English, French, piano and clavier (9: Music), which were considered socially acceptable studies for a girl at that time. 

But as a teenager she decided that she wanted to study Mathematics (2: An Early Sense of Direction) even though she was not allowed to enroll at the school where her father taught.  Refusing to be excluded, she decided to audit the courses without receiving credit from 1900 through 1902.  When she took her final exams, she did so well that she received the equivalent of a Bachelor's Degree (8: Turning No Into Yes).  She then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Gottingen, where she earned her doctorate and graduated summa cum laude (10: The Critic Within).

As a student, she met David Hilbert and Felix Klein who not only became her mentors (4: Supportive Someone), but tried to persuade the university to hire her as an associate professor--even though, at that time, the administration was not interested in having a female mathematics member of the faculty.  As a compromise, she was allowed to join the staff only as a "guest lecturer."  She was extremely popular with her students (nicknamed Noether's Boys), and would get so enthusiastic during her math lectures that her long hair often fell from the pins that kept it in place.  She never let her messy hair interrupt her lessons (6: Life is Not a Beauty Contest).

Her reputation grew, and in 1908 she was elected to the Circolo Matematico di Palermo, and the next year she was invited to become a member of the Deutsche Mathematiker Vereinigung, and the same year was invited to address their annual meeting in Salzburg.  But it wasn't until 1919 that she was allowed to become an official at the University of Gottingen (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

When World War I broke out, Emmy had been a critic of the military mentality (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest), and when students began showing up for classes wearing Hitler's brownshirts, she dismissed the entire movement.  But she was one of the very first Jewish professors to be fired, and by 1933, she had received help from Einstein to move to the United States where Bryn Mawr College offered her a teaching position.  Finally, she had arrived at a welcoming place where neither being Jewish nor female was a disadvantage.

Sadly, that sense of relief didn't last long.  Only 18 months after she arrived in the U.S., Emmy
under went surgery for an ovarian cyst, and died only a few short days later at the age of 53.

Looking forward to your comments...

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