Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Emmy Noether

Finding the essentials

Name: Amelie Emmy Noether
Nationality: German
Lived: 1882-1935
Fields: Abstract algebra and theoretical physics
Claim to fame: ‘Noether’s Theorem’, a cornerstone of quantum physics

One of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century, Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was enthusiastic, generous and full of life. Nevertheless, her academic achievements were largely carried out in relative anonymity and adverse circumstances. A pioneer of abstract algebra and quantum physics, Emmy was a master of invariants and provided important mathematical explanations for Einstein‘s theory of relativity.

An absent-minded professor

Emmy Noether‘s life was spent completely immersed in mathematics, and she loved it. When she lectured, she would become very animated, reaching into her blouse for a handkerchief to wave around, losing hairpins and generally ending up in a state of disarray as she followed one creative line of thought after another. She often walked and talked with her small group of dedicated students through all kinds of weather, chatting loudly and excitedly about elegant, abstract concepts.
Emmy shared her ideas freely with her students, and promoted their work. She published 44 papers, but most of her ideas are featured in the publications of others, including the influential 1931 publication Modern Algebra. She was considered to be one of the leading mathematical thinkers in Germany.

A mathematical life

Even as a child, Emmy, the daughter of a respected mathematician, always had a knack for solving puzzles. Although she expected to teach languages at a finishing school, the University of Erlangen, where her father taught, would only admit her as a course auditor, rather than as a student. So at the age of 18 she became one of two women auditors among nearly a thousand male students. In 1903, Emmy passed a university entrance exam and enrolled as a student at the University of Göttingen. Finally, in 1904, she was enrolled in the University of Erlangen as one of only 80 full-time women students in the whole of Germany. In 1907, she was awarded the highest honours for her PhD thesis.
Although it was impossible for a woman to become Privatdozent at Erlangen University, Emmy nevertheless lectured in her father’s place from time to time and supervised doctoral students when his health failed him. During the seven years she spent teaching at the university‘s Mathematical Institute, she also published six papers that are considered to be classics and developed an international reputation – all without pay, position or title.

A woman lecturer? Never

Emmy‘s original ideas were much admired by her contemporaries, and in 1915 she was invited by fellow mathematicians to join their department at the University of Göttingen. However, objections were again raised from within the establishment over the inclusion of women in academic life.
The biggest obstacle was a Prussian law, passed in 1908, prohibiting female university lecturers. In spite of this, Emmy underwent the qualification exam and the maths faculty announced their wish to hire her, at a very low rank. This sparked enormous controversy, as it opened the doors for a woman to eventually sit on the university‘s Senate. One academic complained, "What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?"
The Prussian ministry would not grant an exception for Emmy, but allowed her to lecture under a male colleague‘s name, unpaid. It was made clear that she would not be allowed any formal academic title anywhere in Germany.

An "unofficial, extraordinary professor"

When the socialists came to power and women‘s rights gained more recognition, Emmy repeated her qualification exam. In 1919, she obtained the rank of Privatdozent. Still unpaid, she could finally teach under her own name. In 1922, the Prussian ministry conferred on her the title ‘nicht beamteter ausserordentlicher Professor‘ (‘unofficial, extraordinary professor‘), granting her an extremely low salary. She was one of two women among 235 male faculty members at the university; Göttingen never made her a ‘real’ professor.
Emmy Noether was the only person invited to give a plenary address at the 1932 International Congress of Mathematicians in Zürich. This was seen by many as the high point of her career. The following year she was forced to leave her job and country when the Nazis rose to power and dismissed all Jews from university positions. Her last years were spent teaching at Bryn Mawr College in the US. In 1935, at the height of her creative powers, she died from a postoperative infection at the age of 53.

Scientific achievements

In her lifetime, Emmy Noether helped to turn algebra in a completely new direction and changed the current thinking on mathematics. She was an authority on invariants, which concern things that remain constant in a changing environment and are an important concept in relativity. Her work formed the basis of many famous publications and theories, and ‘Noether‘s Theorem‘, which proves that the laws of physics are independent of time or place, laid the foundations for quantum physics. At her death she was publicly remembered by Einstein, among others.