Emmy Noether, the mathematician who demonstrated general relativity

Portrait of Emmy Noether, around 1900.
Credit: Author unknown (copyright expired)
Portrait de Emmy Noether vers 1900.
  • Portrait de Emmy Noether vers 1900.
  • Emmy Noether avec ses frères, Alfred, Fritz et Robert
  • Emmy Noether vers 1930
  • Emmy Noether vers 1933
Emmy Noether, the mathematician who demonstrated general relativity

Emmy Noether is regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians. Nevertheless, she lived in a time when science and mathematics were considered to be fields reserved for men. Work by women was undervalued or else ignored.

A passion for mathematics

Amalie Emmy Noether was born in 1882 in Erlangen, Germany. She was the eldest of the four children of mathematician Max Noether and Ida Amalia Kaufmann. As a child, Emmy was already demonstrating an aptitude for mathematics.

With a gift for languages, in 1900 she passed the examination to teach girls. But instead, Emmy decided to combat prejudices and enrolled at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in mathematics. Of the 986 students enrolled, only two were women.

To attend these courses, she first had to request the written authorization of each teacher. Despite everything, she earned her doctorate in mathematics in 1907.

She then taught for seven years, from 1908 to 1915, at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen – without being paid a salary! During this time, she was introduced to the work of mathematician David Hilbert, and collaborated with his colleague Ernst Sigismund Fischer. Emmy developed a number of methods in abstract algebra; her contribution in algebra was so important that today she’s considered the mother of algebra.

Teaching at Göttingen

David Hilbert invited Emmy to come and teach at the University of Göttingen in 1915. But some professors in the faculty of philosophy objected to Emmy being given the title of Privatdozent, which allowed one to give university classes and eventually become a full professor. Hilbert, infuriated by the attitude of his male colleagues, stated: “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 bathhouse.”

To enable her to teach, Hilbert announced classes together with his assistant, Madam Noether, but at which only Emmy was present.

Noether’s theorem

At this point in time, Hilbert was endeavoring to demonstrate elements in the theory of general relativity developed by Albert Einstein.

In 1918 Emmy published a major article in which she developed two theorems that proved, among other things, the theory of general relativity. Today known as Noether’s theorem (history would retain just one theorem), it demonstrated that the laws of physics are invariant and apply everywhere, and it generalizes the laws of conservation in nature. This theory has formed a basis of physics ever since, and is still extensively used today.

It was only in 1919 that Emmy received her habilitation to teach mathematics at the University of Göttingen. But she would still have to wait a year to be paid a salary.

A different teaching

Emmy’s style of teaching was very different from that of her male colleagues. Her classes consisted of long discussions with her students on concrete problems in mathematics. Some enjoyed her style and became unconditional admirers of Emmy. But others hated this type of teaching, and would become the mathematician’s enemies.

She was nonetheless a devoted teacher, even encouraging some of her students to use her work to further their careers.

In 1932, Emmy Noether and Emil Artin received the Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award for their contributions to mathematics.

Exile in the United States

But in April 1933, the Nazis’ rise to power upended the course of Emmy’s life. The Hitler government passed a law revoking the rights to work of all Jewish civil servants. As a Jewish woman, Emmy lost her position at the University of Göttingen.

She continued to teach for a while at her apartment, but finally had to resign herself to emigrating to the United States in late 1933. Emmy accepted a position at Bryn Mawr College, an educational institution reserved at that time for women.

A premature death

Unfortunately, in April 1935 Emmy was diagnosed with a tumor in the abdomen. She passed away on April 14, 1935, four days after an operation that seemed to have gone well.

The contributions of Emmy Noether to the development of mathematics are so significant and important that today she’s considered the greatest woman mathematician of all time.

Many women scientists are unfortunately unknown to the general public, despite important discoveries. Learn more about some of them:

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