Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 226:
EMMY NOETHER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 226.

Today, we meet a gentle mathematical powerhouse. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Emmy Noether could hardly have been anything but a mathematician. She was born in 1882 to a distinguished mathematics professor at Germany's University of Erlangen. He looked after the education of Emmy and her brother Fritz with great care and pride. But Emmy outreached expectation -- she made mathematical history.

She finished her Ph.D. at Erlangen when she was 25. Some called her work awe-inspiring, but Lynn Osen tells us that Noether later dismissed it as a "jungle of formulas." She had her sights on bigger game. She continued studying and living at home. Then she moved to Göttingen, where she could work with Hilbert and Weyl on the algebra of relativity theory. But Göttingen had no faculty posts for women. Hilbert fought for her. "After all," he said angrily, "the [faculty] is not a bath house!" She was finally put on an irregular appointment at a modest salary in 1922 -- when she was 40.

Two years earlier, she'd written a paper that helped set the very foundations of modern abstract algebra. By the time Göttingen grudgingly put her on the payroll, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that she was a remarkable mathematician. By the time the Nazis came to power, Noether was far and away the leading light at that great university.

Emmy Noether was a gentle, low-key lady -- on fire only with the flights of her imagination. But she was Jewish, and she held a quietly stated, but deeply felt, belief in pacifism. Her days in Germany were clearly numbered.

Her brother Fritz fled to a research institute in Siberia, and in 1933 she made it to Bryn Mawr University in the United States. For two years she taught at both Bryn Mawr and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. Then, in 1935, she underwent an operation, seemed to be recovering nicely, and suddenly died. Her New York Times obituary included this by Einstein:

In the realm of algebra ... which the most gifted mathematicians have [studied] for centuries, she discovered methods ... of enormous importance ...
Hermann Weyl had more personal things to say of her,
If we at Göttingen ... often referred to her as Der Noether (using the masculine article, der) it was ... done with a respectful recognition of her power as a creative thinker who seemed to have broken through the barrier of sex. ... She was a great mathematician, the greatest.
But in the end, Emmy Noether's human decency transcended even her own mathematical greatness. We find something you never see in academic honors:
She was warm, Weyl said, like a loaf of bread.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974, pp. 141-152.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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