Celebrating Emmy Noether…Who?

by Debbie L. Kasman in ,


Exactly one hundred years ago this year, Emmy Noether created a math formula that made a fundamental breakthrough in physics.  Her discovery was equally as important to the field of physics as Einstein’s theory of relativity and it was discovered the same year.  Einstein is famous for his discovery but we’ve never heard of Noether.  Why? 

Typically we don’t recognize or celebrate the accomplishments of women in our culture.  We generally only recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of men. 

“Noether’s Theorem” as it’s called today is really quite amazing.  It tells physicists how to figure out conserved quantities, time translation and space translation by looking at symmetry.  The formula is so remarkable that it’s still used in physics today right alongside Einstein’s formula for energy conversion. 

What’s equally amazing is that Noether discovered her theory in the face of overwhelming odds.  She didn’t study math or science as a young girl and she didn’t attend a college prep school.  (Girls weren’t allowed to do that.)  She went to a finishing school like all upper middle class girls at the time and she studied the arts.  She became certified to teach English and French.  After graduating from finishing school, Noether audited university math classes.  (She wasn’t allowed to register for classes but she was allowed to attend them.  Women weren’t allowed to go to university in those days.)

Universities eventually let women enroll and Noether earned a PhD in math but after her graduation, she worked in the field without pay or title.  She didn’t join the Institute faculty either.  (Women could go to university but they weren’t allowed to have a title or pay or join a university faculty.)  Noether was allowed to lecture but only for free and only under the name of a male faculty member.  She had to be listed as his “assistant” when she lectured. 

Noether was eventually awarded the prestigious Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize in mathematics and in her final years, she lectured at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as a guest lecturer. 

One hundred years after Noether's and Einstein's remarkable discoveries in 1915, the world will celebrate.  But we'll only celebrate Einstein's achievements.  It's doubtful there will be any mention of Noether's achievements in the media during the anniversary year.

When you hear about Einstein’s accomplishments during his anniversary year, tell people that it’s Emmy Noether’s anniversary year too.  Let people know she was one of the most important women in the history of the field of math and that she was one of the greatest algebraists of the century.  Tell them that in spite of overwhelming odds, she introduced a formula to the world that was equally as important as Einstein’s.  Tell them it’s called Noether's Theorem” and it tells physicists how to figure out conserved quantities, time translation and space translation by looking at symmetry.  Tell them her formula is so amazing that it’s still used in physics today right alongside Einstein’s formula.          

The accomplishments of women are just as important as the accomplishments of men.  Women deserve recognition and anniversary celebrations too.   

Debbie L. Kasman

Author Lotus of the Heart:  Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul

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