Emmy Noether: The Struggles of a Mathematical Genius

Emmy Noether

One of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century was German-Jewish mathematician Emmy Noether. She was remarkable in that her accomplishments in the field of abstract algebra emerged despite considerable prejudice against her, first because of being a woman, and second because of her ethnic background.

Because of the former, it was a struggle for her to habilitate (the step beyond a doctorate needed before qualifying to become a professor). Even after she became the first woman in Germany to do so in 1919 (right after the close of World War I), discrimination against women essentially blocked her from even becoming a full professor. When she taught classes, her colleague David Hilbert, had to list himself as the official professor.

Then in 1933, with the rise of the Nazi regime, an act was passed “The Law of the Restoration of the Civil Service” forbidding those of Jewish background to teach in Germany, unless they had been World War I veterans (a concession made to placate Hindenburg). Noether fled Germany and obtained a position at Bryn Mawr College in the US. She died two years later.

Einstein wrote a beautiful obituary about her in the New York Times:

“In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians. Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” -Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 1, 1935.

Several years ago I visited the site of her grave. It is in a quiet, monastery-like part of Bryn Mawr campus, known as The Cloisters. At first I didn’t see the grave marker, as it is very plain and right in the pavement. Here are photos of The Cloisters and Emmy Noether’s grave:

This piece was originally published at www.pachs.net, and revised after helpful comments by Thony Christie, who blogs as The Renaissance Mathematicus. He has written several excellent pieces about Emmy Noether, including:

The House Where Emmy Lived

Emmy and the Habilitation

Paul Halpern is the author of Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics.