Written by Vedika Pathania, a second-year student.
It isn’t often that we come across names of women who contributed immensely to science and mathematics. And even if we do, they are often shadowed. Most of us, when told to recall names of women who were scientists or mathematicians can’t name more than a few, which is why it falls on our shoulders to learn and educate about the women who broke gender norms, challenged society and patriarchy, who fought for what they were passionate about and those because of whom science and technology have reached the heights we see today.
One such name is that of Emmy Noether. It’s difficult to imagine a more suitable candidate in a world when young scientists are looking for inspirational female role models. Emmy Noether was a mathematical powerhouse, and she was well aware of it. One can go as far as to say that she was perhaps meant for, and predisposed to, a mathematical genius. She had complete faith in her talents and ideas. Despite this, their concepts and their contribution to science sometimes go unrecognised even a century later. Her fundamental theorem, which places symmetry at the centre of physical law, is well-known among physicists.
Born in Erlangen, Germany, in 1882, Emmy’s parents wanted all of their children to obtain doctorates, so she went to a university where women were not officially accepted. Sexist restrictions prohibited Noether from working in academia after graduation. Unfazed, she lectured for many years at Erlangen and, beginning in 1915, at the University of Göttingen – frequently for free. During the time, the city of Erlangen was the place to be for mathematicians because of the presence of the likes of Felix Klein and David Hilbert. Noether gained the respect of her male colleagues at a period when women were thought to be cognitively inferior to men.
In Albert Einstein’s discovered theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity, she addressed a persistent conundrum. She also proved a groundbreaking mathematical theorem that revolutionised the way scientists explore the cosmos. Even when Noether was paid to teach at Göttingen and made her most significant contributions, fate came in the way. Hitler’s rise to power resulted in the loss of her job because she was Jewish.
She fled to the United States and taught at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania until her death in 1935 when she was just 53 years old.
Physicists applaud Noether’s theorem, despite the fact that most people have never heard of her. According to Ruth Gregory of Durham University in England, the theory is “pervasive in all we do.” Gregory researches gravity, an area in which Noether’s legacy looms big, and has lectured on the importance of Noether’s work.
Noether was a well-known mathematician at the time. In addition to her theorem, which is now known simply as “Noether’s theorem,” she founded a whole branch of mathematics known as abstract algebra. Noether discovered a connection between two fundamental physics concepts: conservation laws and symmetry. Every symmetry has an associated conservation law, according to Noether’s theorem, and vice versa: every conservation law has an associated symmetry.
Noether’s theorem formed the basis of the standard model of particle physics, which represents nature on microscopic sizes, in the second half of the twentieth century. Noether viewed mathematics as what is now known as structures. To her, the properties of a structure’s components — whether they were numbers, polynomials, or anything else — were less important than the networks of relationships between all of the items in the system. This allowed her to offer proofs that applied to structures that were more generic than the originals and showed previously unknown linkages. It was a novel and elegant method to algebra that revolutionised the field. And Noether understood that it may have an impact on other aspects of mathematics.
Since Noether’s time, women’s standing in mathematics and science has improved, although bigotry and discrimination still exist. There are far too few prominent female mathematicians who are given the credit they deserve. We don’t know how many potential Emmy Noethers have been denied the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. More people should be aware of — and appreciate — someone who, despite all odds, transformed the scientific world.
Key points summary
- Emmy Noether was a German mathematician born in 1882
- She lectured for many years at Erlangen and, beginning in 1915, at the University of Göttingen – frequently for free.
- She fled to the United States and taught at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania after losing her job because of Hitler’s rise to power
- She founded a whole branch of mathematics known as abstract algebra.
- Noether discovered a connection between two fundamental physics concepts: conservation laws and symmetry.
- Every symmetry has an associated conservation law, according to Noether’s theorem, and vice versa: every conservation law has an associated symmetry.