Biography of Emmy Noether

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Emmy Noether (1882-1935)


     Although Jews have excelled at mathematics and have always been among the leaders in that first science, few women have ever achieved in that field. Emmy Noether is one of these few, particularly because she faced both anti-Jewish discrimination in her native Germany but also because women were rarely admitted to the study of mathematics.

     Her principal contributions were to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.  Albert Einstein called her the most important woman in the history of mathematics because she revolutionized the theory of ring fields and algebras. In physics her theorem explains the fundamental connection between symmetry and conservation laws.

     Between 1908 and 1919, Noether made her most important contributions to the theory of algebraic invariants in the calculus of variations. Noether’s Theorem is viewed as the most important theorem guiding the development of modern physics. Between 1920 and 1926 she changed the face of abstract algebra. Her paper “Idealtheorie in Ringbereichen,” or “Theory of Ideals in Ring Domains,” dealing with commutative rings, gave physicists with a tool with numerous applications. She used the ascending chain condition, leading mathematicians to call objects satisfying it Noetherian in her honor.  Between 1927 and 1935 Noether published a number of papers dealing with hypercomplex numbers and united the representation theory of groups with the theory of modules.  She was also credited with being responsible for work done by other mathematicians, including algebraic topology, which is far removed from her field of interest.

     Emmy Noether was born in Erlangen in the state of Bavaria (Bayern). Her father was the mathematician Max Noether. She studied mathematics at the University of Erlange after first studying French and English. Her father was a lecturer at Erlangen. He too was an important contributor to mathematics, although he was largely self taught. He worked mainly in algebraic geometry and became prominent by developing the several Max Noether Theorems. 

     One of Emmy’s brothers, Fritz Noether, was also well  known for his work in applied mathematics.

     In 1907, Emmy wrote her doctor’s dissertation and then worked for no pay for seven years at the Mathematical Institute at the Univrsity of Erlangen (women were not appointed to any academic position). Nevertheless, she was invited by two major mathematicians to join the faculty at the famous University of Göttingen, which was at that time the world’s leading university for mathematical research. The faculty outside mathematics objected to the presence  of a Jew and a woman so that she lectured for four years under the name of a man.  She wrote a second dissertation, as is obligatory in Germany if one wants to become a professor, and was given the title of Privatdozent, meaning private teacher. She continued at Göttingen until 1933, when the Nazi regime had her and all Jewish professors fired. She then moved to the United States. Meanwhile her work had become the foundation of the book Modern Algebra by the Dutch mathematician van der Waerden. In 1932, one year after her expulsion from Göttingen, she was the keynote speaker at the Congress of Mathematicians then meeting in Zurich, Switzerland.

     In the United States, Noether was appointed professor of mathematics at Bryn Mawr College, a prestigious and wealthy women’s college near Philadelphia, Pa.  At the age of 53 she died from an ovarian cyst operation.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

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