Amalie Emmy Noether was born on March 23, 1882. She was a groundbreaking German mathematician who made immense contributions to both algebra and physics in the face of great adversity. She is best known for Noether’s Theorem, which had far-reaching consequences for theoretical physics.
Among her many academic achievements, Noether was one of the first to discover that time and energy are related, which, according to physicist Lee Smolin, made us understand why “riding a bicycle is safe.”
Albert Einstein called her “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Noether spent most of her career working for free, because of her gender
Noether (pronounced NER-ter) was born in the small German town of Erlangen as Amalie but was always referred to as “Emmy.” She attended university in Erlangen, following her brother and father into studying math. She was one of only two women who were studying at the school. Noether was forbidden from being an enrolled student but was allowed to audit classes. Her father, Max Noether, was a leading mathematician in late 19th century Germany, lecturing at the University of Heidelberg.
After completing her studies in 1907, she worked at her alma-mater as a lecturer, going unpaid because women weren’t allowed work in academic positions. In some cases, she had to use a man’s name when teaching. In 1915 She moved to the University of Gottingen, where she remained unpaid. In 1919 she was finally recognized as a faculty member, but she remained unpaid until 1922. She had been called to work in Gottingen to help the faculty there in their efforts to define some of Einstein’s theories.
2. She fled Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933
After Hitler’s rise in Germany, Noether, who was Jewish, fled her homeland for the U.S. She took up a position at Bryn Mawr College, a former Quaker school, 4 miles west of Philadelphia, where her work was widely recognized. Her move to America was precipitated by the Nazi policy banning Jewish people from occupying high-ranking academic positions.
Her brother, Fritz, also fled Germany in the 1930s. He moved to the Soviet Union to take a position at the University of Tomsk. In 1937, he was arrested by police and accused of being a spy for Germany and of being an anti-Soviet agitator. He was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in 1941. Later, in December 1988, Fritz Noether’s son, Herman, successfully lobbied to the transition Soviet government to recognize that Fritz Noether had been tried and executed on “groundless charges.”
3. Noether Died at 53 After a Routine Procedure in a Pennsylvania Hospital
In 1935, just two years after moving to Pennsylvania, Noether was admitted to a local hospital in Pennsylvania to treat an ovarian cyst. She died a few days after the operation. Noether was 53 years old.
4. Albert Einstein Wrote a Glowing Obituary for Her in The New York Times
Albert Einstein was a huge fan of Noether’s approach to math. He championed her and helped her gain employment in the U.S. after she fled Germany. In a touching obit he wrote for her in The New York Times in 1935, he wrote:
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.
The New York Times wrote in 2012 that in terms of mathematics, Noether’s theorem is as important as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
BONUS: The Doodle’s Artist Says ‘There Weren’t Any Obstacles That Would Stop Noether’
Sophie Diao, the artist behind the Noether Google Doodle in 2015, wrote about Noether and the doodle, saying:
… For Noether’s 133rd birthday, I thought it would be best to highlight the mathematician’s numerous accomplishments and shine a light on the influence Noether had on the world.
When I first started tackling this doodle, I originally drew several concepts attempting to visualize Noether’s Theorem due to its revolutionary impact on the way people approach physics. But after discussing my ideas with a few professionals in the field, I decided that the doodle should include references to her mathematical work too. … there weren’t any obstacles that would stop Noether from her studies.
In this doodle, each circle symbolizes a branch of math or physics that Noether devoted her illustrious career to. From left to right, you can see topology (the donut and coffee mug), ascending/descending chains, Noetherian rings (represented in the doodle by the Lasker-Noether theorem), time, group theory, conservation of angular momentum, and continuous symmetries — and the list keeps going on and on from there! Noether’s advancements not only reflect her brilliance but also her determination in the face of adversity.