Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Emmy Noether

By Richard Webb

 was a mathematician who discovered perhaps the most profound idea in contemporary physics. Noether’s theorem, which she formulated in 1915, says that symmetries in the universe give rise to mathematical conservation laws. This statement is a crucial underpinning of physical laws, from those that govern the rotation of a wheel or the orbits of planets around stars, to the intricate mathematical frameworks of general relativity, quantum physics and particle physics.

Noether was born in the small German town of Erlangen, near Nuremberg, in 1882. Despite the fact that her father, Max Noether, was a professor at the University of Erlangen, she was initially forbidden from enrolling there because of her gender.

Such discrimination dogged Noether’s career. Although she eventually gained both an undergraduate degree and a PhD, no university would hire her for a permanent faculty position. She eventually became one of the world’s foremost experts in the fields of abstract algebra, algebraic topology and the mathematics of symmetry, working at the University of Erlangen and subsequently the University of Göttingen.

But for over a decade, she was without appointment, pay or formal title, despite the championing of her work by many of the most prominent mathematicians of the age, chief among them David Hilbert and Felix Klein. That only changed in 1919, when the end of the first world war and the replacement of the German Reich by the liberal Weimar Republic brought a sea change in attitudes towards women’s education.


as ideas in physics go, they don’t come any more fundamental than Noether’s theorem. Sadly, Noether’s life after discovering the theorem wasn’t a happy one. She came from a Jewish family, and on the accession of the Nazis to power in Germany in 1933, her hard-won right to teach at the University of Göttingen was revoked. She emigrated to the US and taught at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, but died of complications from cancer surgery two years later.


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