Since I’ve started writing Speaking Up, I’ve started noting the birthdays of fabulous, creative, amazing women who would be good candidates for this list. Since each Google Doodle honors a person on his — or, sometimes, her, but as we’ve learned, almost always his — birthday, the trick here at Speaking Up is to find women who share the same birthdate but don’t always get their fair share of credit. Recently, the STEMinist blog identified 64 historical women in science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM fields), 16 for each, and are currently hosting their March 2012 STEMinist Madness Tournament to celebrate the contributions of these innovators. So far, three rounds of voting have narrowed the field to the “Elite 8” STEM women, and voting for the 4th round just opened up today (go vote!).
I realized that these 64 historical STEMinists (learn more about them all here) represented a great pool of candidates for Speaking Up, so I tracked down all of their birthdays and stashed them for later. I figured that the chances were pretty good I would eventually be able to post about one of them, but I only did this about a week ago and planned to have to wait. Little did I know that March 23rd would be the day!
This morning’s Google Doodle honors Juan Gris, a Spanish painter who worked in the genre of Cubism, born March 23, 1887. But March 23 was also the birthday of Amalie Emmy Noether, one of the most influential mathematicians of any gender, born in 1882. Coincidentally, just yesterday Emmy (as she was primarily known) was voted one of the Elite 8 in STEMinist’s March Madness tournament! It’s only fitting, then, for Speaking Up to take the opportunity to learn more about this accomplished innovator in the field of mathematics, and to wonder why, again, it is that we don’t see these accomplishments reflected in Doodles.
Emmy is most known for her contributions to mathematics, but she worked in theoretical physics as well. Her accomplishments are many and are wide-ranging, and I would certainly recommend checking out her Wikipedia page for a more thorough discussion of her many contributions (and for a very easy way to learn more about abstract algebra by chasing down the links!). When she got her start, pursuing higher education at the University of Erlangen, she was one of only two female students out of a population of almost 1000. And because the University was concerned that women would ruin the academic rigor of their institution, Emmy could only audit classes and was required to get individual permission from every professor she would study under.
Noether persisted and eventually wrote her dissertation, and taught at the same University for several years (without receiving compensation, unfortunately). She was then invited to work with David Hilbert and Felix Klein at the University of Göttingen, but once again was not paid for several years until a special position was created for her. Indeed, when she taught, she did so under Hilbert’s name. Eventually, Emmy, who was Jewish, was forced to leave Germany after Hitler came to power, and settled in the United States at Bryn Mawr College. She remained there until her death in 1935.
What about Emmy’s work in math and physics? Noether’s mathematical work was largely focused on abstract algebra, which deals with properties of mathematical structures, how they differ, how they are similar, and how they relate and interact. Abstract algebra provides the foundation for many discoveries in modern-day physics, and so her work crossed the boundaries between those two disciplines. She is probably most well-known for Noether’s Theorem, which provides the mathematical foundation for the conservation laws that are so important in physics (such as conservation of momentum or conservation of energy). While this is still critically important work, at the time it was especially important because she demonstrated that Einstein’s theory of general relativity did indeed conserve energy. She also produced Noether’s Second Theorem, which is used to understand modern field theories in physics. Her work has been praised because it both provides practical tools for calculating and understanding modern theories in physics, while at the same time giving abstract insight to the underpinnings of the Universe and the physical laws that govern it.
I could go on and on about the work she did in topology, noncommutative algebra, algebraic invariant theory, and representation of mathematical groups, but suffice it to say that Noether’s work drove both mathematics and physics forward in ways that are still being seen and understood today.
Noether’s work was truly groundbreaking and was incredibly influential. At the same time, her life story demonstrates that we don’t live in a world where ability, merit, and achievements lead to unbiased recognition of talent and contributions; repeatedly, people tried to push Noether out of a field in which she was absolutely brilliant because she was a woman and because she was Jewish. Speaking Up is here to promote positive change, by extending Google Doodle’s mission of highlighting creators and innovators to include more women. However, I think it’s also important to acknowledge some sad, difficult truths. One such truth is that Emmy Noether worked for years without pay, with other people receiving the credit, and was never elected to the Academy of Sciences at Göttingen, nor was she ever promoted to full professor. And yet, because of her persistence, her passion for her mathematical work, her dedication to working with students and helping them change the field with their own gifts, and her brilliance, she will forever be known for broad-reaching discoveries and contributions to algebra, and as one of the most gifted mathematicians in human history.