Kosmosest #8: The World Knows Albert Einstein. What About Emmy Noether?
A look into the work and life of a hidden figure who transformed physics in early 1900s despite gender inequality—a delayed tribute to the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Hello, space explorer.
There has been a bit of a gap since the last newsletter as my PhD work has been on a roll: contributing to a proposal for JWST (J.W. Space Telescope) observing time*, attending a meeting in Italy, preparing my submissions for conferences, and solving the puzzles of the everyday scripts and formulas. I’ve also thought about the best format to provide for paid subscribers—more on this in the end of the newsletter!
*How is the yearly schedule of JWST decided? A separate post is in the works on this.
Today’s newsletter is a delayed tribute to the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11; implemented by UNESCO and United Nations-Women):
This Day is an opportunity to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. Gender equality is a global priority for UNESCO, and the support of young girls, their education and their full ability to make their ideas heard are levers for development and peace.
— UNESCO (2023) International Day of Women and Girls in Science, unesco.org.
I use this day as an opportunity to share the stories of women whose contributions aren’t known outside their scientific domains. You see, whenever I learned about the discoveries made by female physicists as a student, their background would involve the fact that women were not allowed to enroll in university at the time, they worked without salary nor title, and/or their male colleagues took the credit for their work. Let us recall that in many universities, women won the right to study only 100 years ago (see e.g., Oxford University marking the centenary of women’s full membership).
One of the scientists who faced the discriminatory hurdles was Emmy Noether, whose pivotal theorem was taught in my undergrad course on analytical mechanics. At a time when Albert Einstein’s new theory of gravitation—general relativity—faced an issue, Noether not only solved the problem, but also laid a foundation to the standard model of particle physics. Our current grasp of the physical world relies heavily upon Noether’s theorem, which proves the fundamental relation between the symmetries of a physical system and the conservation laws.
Here are some facts about the life of Emmy Noether:
Amalie Emmy Noether was born to a Jewish family in Erlangen, Germany, in 1882. When she reached college age, she had to audit classes as German universities didn’t admit women.
In 1904, she was permitted to enroll in a doctoral program at the University of Erlangen, and she earned her Ph.D. three years later. However, she had to work without pay or an official position even having obtained the degree.
It was in these years that Noether developed her aforementioned theorem.
Noether finally became an untenured associate math professor in 1922 at Göttingen, where a modest salary was allotted to her. She worked there for 11 years, until Germany's Nazi government dismissed Jewish academics.
On a more positive note, Noether became the first woman to give a plenary lecture at an International Congress of Mathematicians in 1932.
In the same year, Noether received recognition for her work with the Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award along Austrian mathematician Emil Artin for their contributions to mathematics.
Noether found refuge in the United States, taking up a position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She was also a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Unfortunately, her life and its new stage was cut short. She died unexpectedly after a surgical operation at the age of 53 in 1935. Tributes were written by the mathematicians and physicists whose work Noether had impacted.
In recent years, a number of articles have popped up to recognize Emmy Noether’s work. Quanta Magazine gave a brief overview of the issue regarding general relativity and Noether’s solution:
When general relativity was first published, 10 years after the special version, a problem arose: It appeared that energy might not be conserved in strongly curved space-time. It was well-known that certain quantities in nature are always conserved: the amount of energy (including energy in the form of mass), the amount of electric charge, the amount of momentum. In a remarkable feat of mathematical alchemy, the German mathematician Emmy Noether proved that each of these conserved quantities is associated with a particular symmetry, a change that doesn’t change anything.
Noether showed that the symmetries of general relativity — its invariance under transformations between different reference frames — ensure that energy is always conserved.
—The simple idea behind Einstein's greatest discoveries, Quanta Magazine (2022).
Emmy Noether faced sexism and nazism – 100 years later her contributions to ring theory still influence modern math, The Conversation. (2021) Available at: https://theconversation.com/emmy-noether-faced-sexism-and-nazism-100-years-later-her-contributions-to-ring-theory-still-influence-modern-math-163245
How mathematician Emmy Noether's theorem changed physics, Discover Magazine. (2020). Available at: https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/how-mathematician-emmy-noethers-theorem-changed-physics
All links accessed: February 19, 2023.
I’ll leave you with this illustrated video about Noether's Theorem.
Thanks for reading!
All Kosmosest newsletters are free to access. Writing and preparing such content is time consuming, however, and I aim to provide a way for keen readers to support my outreach work. My idea is to send additional, more specific posts to paid subscribers in the near future. The first one will give you an overview about the scheduling of JWST’s famous observations and how astronomers pitch their ideas to a committee. I’ll also take recommendations on the topics covered!
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