Role Model Sunday: Emmy Noether

It’s been quite a while since I wrote the last RMS post, but that’s in parts due to my work for FemCamp Wien, so Feminism’s share in my life wasn’t reduced by even a minute ;) Also, this post does happen to be posted not on a Sunday, because hell, I wrote it, and I’m happy about finishing it, and now here it is. Enjoy!

Portrait of Emmy Noether, before 1910.

Portrait of Emmy Noether, before 1910.


So, welcome again to the Role Model Sunday articles! This time, I’d like to talk a bit about Emmy Noether, a German mathematician. She is best known for her contributions toward the field of abstract algebra and theoretical physics. Pavel Alexandrov, Albert Einstein, Jean Dieudonné and others called her the most important woman in the history of mathematics. When she died, her obituary in the NY Times was written by Albert Einstein. Part of his theory of relativity are based on Emmy Noether’s work in the theory of invariants. Her work also helped develop ring theory into a major mathematical topic, and inspired many of her students and colleagues. Much of her own work was published not under her own name, but theirs.

Emmy’s father was Max Noether, also a mathematician, and professor at the University of Erlangen. Dismissing her initial plans of becoming a teacher of French and English, she studied mathematics in Erlangen. As women were excluded from academic positions at the time, she had to work without pay for 7 years after completing her dissertation in 1907.

In 1915, she was invited to the University of Göttingen, teaching courses as an assistant to David Hilbert. Her habilitation was approved of in 1919, allowing her to teach using her own name. Part of the discussion on if she should become a Privatdozent has been quoted as follows:

One faculty member protested: “What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?”
Hilbert responded with indignation, stating, “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bath house.”

(source: wikipedia)

Emmy Noether spent the winter of 1928-1929 in Moscow, coming in touch with and supporting the Russian Revolution and its ideas. Although politics never were that important to her, this interest of hers lead to her eviction from a pension lodging after people complained about a “Marxist-leaning jewess”.

In 1933, her jewish roots were the reason for Emmy Noether’s expulsion from teaching at University of Göttingen. For her, and other jewish professors, friends around the world tried to find new teaching positions. Two universities contacted Emmy Noether: Somerville College in Oxford (UK), and Bryn Mawr College in the United States. A grant from Rockefeller Foundation made it possible for her to take the position at Bryn Mawr, and she started to work there in late 1933.

She died in 1935, after surgery to remove a tumor from her pelvis.

My sources for this post were wikipedia and the MacTutor History of Mathematics at St Andrew’s College.

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