A Visit to Emmy
Claire and I, new residents of Bryn Mawr, PA, recently took one of our regular strolls through the College campus via one of several different routes. This time we wanted to pay a visit to a mathematics celebrity — or rather to her memorial marker. We made casual searches at first, hoping to stumble upon it. This strategy would never have worked. The marker is in an area known as the Cloisters, surrounding a courtyard that is completely enclosed in a majestic building, The Old Library, which also holds offices and classrooms.
Armed with a location description and a map, we found the building which seemed to have no direct access to the courtyard. We entered quietly, hearing a class in progress, and tried two locked doors heading, we thought, to the cloisters. The third one was charmed and opened for us. We strolled slowly around three-quarters of the yard, pausing to read the stone markers and the brass plaques dating from both of the previous two centuries. At the far end we found her, prominent initials E.N. on an anything-but-prominent stone in the walk. We brushed a little snow off to read the dates.
Emmy gained her early love of mathematics from her professor father. In spite of showing great promise, her enrollment at the Mathematics Institute of Erlangen was delayed for four years, but she was allowed to audit classes. In 1904, she was permitted to enroll and she earned a PhD within four years. She then taught classes at Erlangen, working for free for about eight years. In this interval she had six mathematical papers published.
In 1916 she moved to the University at Göttingen where she could not obtain a paid position in spite of endorsement by the highly regarded David Hilbert. The spirit of Hilbert was in the news just last month, having had one of his 23 toweringly difficult, century-old problems solved. Read about it here.
Hilbert let Emmy give lectures in courses listed under his own name. She was denied promotion over the objection of the esteemed Hermann Weyl who was hired at a higher rank. In 1933 the Third Reich withdrew her right to teach at all. She was a German Jew… and you may have gleaned the fact that she was a woman.
Emmy suffered these hardships, but according to those that knew her, she did not suffer. She enjoyed teaching her many successful students. She enjoyed helping cover her father’s classes when he became a virtual cripple. She enjoyed recognition from her colleagues. She enjoyed presenting at an international conference in Zurich, even though she was the only female lecturer present. Weyl writes of Emmy, “Her courage, her frankness, her unconcern about her own fate, her conciliatory spirit was in the midst of all the hatred and meanness, despair and sorrow surrounding us, a moral solace.”
Her hand forced by the Hitler regime, Emmy Noether travelled to America and received a position on the faculty at Bryn Mawr College from a female Head of Mathematics. She enjoyed her students as well as the weekly lectures she gave at “Einstein’s House” — the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. She was into her second year teaching when she died due to complications of cancer and surgery. Her urn was placed under this stone.
Noether’s mathematical physics is very deep and theoretical.
More detail on her life and times is available on this video sponsored by the Brilliant organization. It’s worth putting up with the ads. If and when they solve “the theory of everything,” you may hear about Emmy Noether once more.
Clark, Susan E. Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science. NCTM. 1996
Smith, Sanderson. Agnesi to Zeno: Over 100 Vignettes from the History of Math. Key Curriculum Press. 1996
Shen, Qinna. 2019. "A Refugee Scholar from Nazi Germany: Emmy Noether and Bryn Mawr College." The Mathematical Intelligencer, 41.3: 1-14