Happy Pi Day, Emmy!

David Wilson wrote in his paper, “History of Mathematics,” for Rutgers, Spring 2000:

We will probably never know who first discovered that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and diameter is constant, nor will we ever know who first tried to calculate this ratio.

Starting in 1988, March 14th has been celebrated as Pi Day. In lieu of a candidate to celebrate this mysterious symbolic day, I offer Emmy Noether, born March 23, 1882 in Bavaria. She was the daughter of a highly regarded mathematician, who surpassed her father’s reputation, and was a woman who transcended her time in history. In a letter to the Editor of The New York Times, dated May 1, 1935, Albert Einstein wrote:

NoetherEmmyIn 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.

As a Jewish woman in early 20th century Germany, Amalie Emmy Noether faced obstacles of sexism and racism throughout her life. Her intelligence and focused determination earned her a Ph.D. in mathematics, the respect of  colleagues and a place in history.

Though her father was a mathematician and professor at University of Erlangen, women could only audit classes by consent of a professor. Noether was one of two women attending classes, during 1900-1902, among thousands of men. She took the university entrance exam in 1903, and went on to gain her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1907.

After university, Emmy Noether worked for seven years without pay or title at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen. However, that did not deter her in making significant contributions in theoretical algebra.

Her lectures and published papers  gained a reputation with fellow mathematicians. She was invited to accept membership and lecture at several international mathematical societies.  In German, however, her gender prevented her admission to the Faculty at Göttingen University.

Mathematicians, David Hilbert and Felix Klein, convinced for to join the  Göttingen Mathematical Institute while they lobbied on her behalf. As she was not on the Faculty, she lectured through the guise of deceptive advertising. Hilbert allowed courses to be advertised using his name, “with the assistance of Dr. E Noether.”

Noether joined the Mathematical Institute in 1915, where she worked with Hilbert and Klein on Einstein’s general relativity theory. Her first work at the Institute was proving a theorem that still bears her name. Noether’s Theorem proves a relationship between symmetries in physics and conservation principles.It has become a fundamental tool of modern theoretical physics and calculus.

Noether worked at the Mathematical Institute in Göttingen for three years without a salary. In 1919, after Albert Einstein added his support to Hilbert and Klein’s campaign. His intercession persuaded the Mathematical Institute to allow Noether to lecture, but still without pay.

In 1922, fifteen years after receiving her Ph.D., she was given a small salary and the honorary title of “associate professor without tenure.” With the rise of the Nazi Party and continued gender bias, Noether’s status did not change while she remained at Göttingen.

Though she had international prestige and had made significant contributions in the field of mathematics, Hitler’s Nazi government of 1933 denied Noether permission to teach. She accepted a visiting professorship at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College and also lectured at Princeton.

Emmy Noether lived in the United States until her death in 1935, at the age of 57, from complications after surgery to remove a tumor. Upon her death, Albert Einstein’s letter to the New York Times included the following:

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.

© 2014, A Woman in Time

Further Reading:
Problems you can solve just by looking at them: The meaning of Noether’s Theorem
Professor Einstein Writes in Appreciation of a Fellow-Mathematician


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