Emmy Noether, a lesson of courage

Emmy Noether, an early 20th century mathematician, has had a major impact on modern algebra. According to Albert Einstein, she was a true “mathematical genius”. From Nazism to sexism, she had to fight many injustices and obstacles in her life and her career, which, from today’s perspective, serve to reinforce the power of her scientific achievements.

Science at all costs


Emmy Noether was born on March 23rd 1882 in Erlangen, Germany. As a young girl, she soon lost interest in feminine activities such as piano or sewing. Instead, she preferred to follow the footsteps of her father, Max Noether, a distinguished mathematician.


However, her plan to study mathematics at Göttingen was cut short: in 1900, women were not admitted. To attend the classes she wanted, Emmy Noether managed to get permission from individual professors to sit as an auditor. In this way she met Klein, Minkowski and Hilbert, leading mathematicians of the day.


Academic sexism


In 1903, with women finally allowed to study at university, Emmy Noether enrolled at Erlangen, where she earned her doctorate in 1908 on systems of invariants, a field of abstract algebra. But there again, Noether had to face institutional sexism. Unable to find a job as a professor, she was only allowed to teach at Erlangen’s Mathematical Institute occasionally and without pay, as the replacement of her father.


In 1915, she was invited by David Hilbert and Felix Klein to return to the University of Göttingen. But in spite of their efforts, she was obliged to cheat and use Hilbert’s name to be able to teach. It was only in 1923 that she finally obtained the title of “professor” and was able to earn a modest salary for her work.

Although the academic Institution took a long time in accepting her, Emmy Noether’s exceptional skills were obvious to her fellow scientists. Albert Einstein himself saw her as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since women were given access to university”.


Nazism and exile


Born in a Jewish family, Emmy Noether became a target of the Nazis’ cruelty as soon as Hitler took control of Germany in 1933. Following passage of a law that excluded all Jews from state jobs, Emmy Noether lost her teaching position at Göttingen.


For a while, she gave classes to her students at home but was quickly forced to flee Germany. She found shelter in the United States, where for two years she taught at Bryn Mawr College, a university for women. In April 1935, followig an operation for an ovarian cyst, she died tragically within days.


Noether’s scientific legacy


Many fields of modern mathematics owe a lot, directly or indirectly, to Emmy Noether’s work. Her first studies on invariants gave an interesting perspective to Einstein’s theory of relativity and produced fundamental tools for theoretical physics. She made significant contributions to the development of algebra and established new concepts that have changed the way arithmetic is studied.


But beyond her scientific legacy, Emmy Noether has left us an invaluable life lesson of strength and determination: anyone, man or woman, who wants to do something big, should follow their dream.


L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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