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A Shory Biography of Emmy Noether
March 27, 2012 8:21 AM   Subscribe


 
Anyone who's taken abstract algebra would have heard of her. Shame so few people do.
posted by phrontist at 8:44 AM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


It is really nice to see an article about Emmy Noether, although it happens to push two of my buttons right off the bat:

- articles about "N things you've never heard of"
- claiming that oe is pronounced "er"

Noether's Theorem is beautiful, and, in its explication of the connection between symmetries and conservation laws, is really fundamental to modern physics.
posted by dfan at 8:46 AM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


- claiming that oe is pronounced "er"

I don't know how she, personally, pronounces her name, but as a general rule for non-rhotic English soeakers "oe is pronounced er" isn't bad. I guess for Americans you'd need to add "without the r."
posted by yoink at 8:51 AM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm afraid that as a point of principle I don't read any article that has the impertinence to tell me what, or who, I haven't heard of, or don't know about. I find it incredibly annoying and insolent.
posted by Decani at 8:58 AM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anyone who's taken abstract algebra would have heard of her.

Though I've heard of her, I don't think it was in abstract algebra, but then again, I kindof checked out halfway through that class.

It was probably somewhere in the half-dozen physics classes, I'd guess.
posted by weston at 9:06 AM on March 27, 2012


"What do you mean 'you', kemosabe?" is my gut response to these things. Emmy Noether is certainly undercelebrated, but.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:08 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Noetherian Ring is also the name of a women's organization in mathematics.
posted by jonp72 at 9:12 AM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love that Einstein, who helped prove there was No Ether, was a fan of Noether.
posted by benzenedream at 9:13 AM on March 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


When Dave Goldberg, a physicist at Drexel University who has written about her work, recently took a little “Noether poll” of several dozen colleagues, students and online followers, he was taken aback by the results. “Surprisingly few could say exactly who she was or why she was important,” he said. “A few others knew her name but couldn’t recall what she’d done, and the majority had never heard of her.”

This does seem overstated. I'm certain that his colleagues heard of her unless they somehow managed to become physics professors without learning second-year physics. Who are these "online followers"?

Ok, they may only know her as a name or as the name of an important theorem, but I bet they couldn't tell me much about the private life of Maxwell either.

Noether certainly deserves more attention, yes, but the author doesn't help by overstating the case.
posted by vacapinta at 9:13 AM on March 27, 2012


It's true that I'd never heard of "Amalie" Noether. Emmy, though, yeah.

In part because there were so few female mathematicians for so long that it seems like there's a standard list that shows up on all the posters. Emmy Noeter, Sonia Kavalevskaya, Sophie Germain...I forget the rest. Maria Agnesi, maybe?
posted by leahwrenn at 9:13 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like what they were trying to do with the simplified description of Noether's theorem, but it's a pity they confuse translation/rotation, and angular momentum has little to do with keeping bicycles upright unless you're riding no-hands.
posted by doop at 9:13 AM on March 27, 2012


In fact, I'm a female mathematician, and I know lots of really good female mathematicians, and I'm still vaguely mildly surprised to learn some result or some paper is by a woman. Sort of a "oh, hunh, that's cool" kind of reaction.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:15 AM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Never heard of"???

Who the hell do you think dug up her rotting corpse and reanimated it with the mysterious power of "electricity" despite all those who laughed at me and called me MAD???

And who do you think taught the undead creature to love again and then had 10 years of a wonderful, joyful relationship, until she decided she needed some "space" and maybe we should start seeing other people or some such???

And who do you think is TOTALLY FINE WITH HOW IT ENDED, because actually it was MUTUAL???

The fucking IMPERTINENCE of this post is so insolent and annoying it is BEYOND BELIEF. I'll have you know that I know EVERYTHING and nothing on this site ever surprises me in the slightest and I shit GOLDEN TURDS that smell like BUBBLEGUM.

Bloody impertinence of young people these days I don't know. WAIT YES I DO.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:19 AM on March 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


And if you're in Philly, you can pay respects to her tomb in the Cloisters at Bryn Mawr College. Regardless of the phrasing of the headline, I'm always chuffed when she makes it into a post or news article. Thanks for this.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:25 AM on March 27, 2012


To those complaining about the pronunciation guidelines in the article: L'Hopital is regularly pronounced "luh hoe pee tal" in US math courses.

"Nerther" is closer by far than what most of their readers would guess.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:32 AM on March 27, 2012


What I despise about this article is that it ASSUMES that we would only be interested in a short biography of Noether written in English - as if to suggest that we simply could not "cope" with a 12-volume biography written in German with pictures drawn in Swahili that can be found in a undersea library tended by FISH-MEN.

This is representative of the disgusting and impertinent dumbing down of MetaFilter and I, for one, am proud to say that I am UTTERLY unable to be dumbed down any further.

GOOD DAY TO YOU SIRS AND MADAMS.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:41 AM on March 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


most people couldn't name a single mathematician, and it's not because they're dumb, it's just not that kind of field. if you don't know who noether is, you also probably don't know abel, or weierstrass, or grothendieck, etc. etc.. i don't like the fact that scientists and theorists are almost completely uncelebrated in our society, but i sure as shit don't know what to do about it.
posted by facetious at 9:41 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]




There is almost no way you'd know anything about mathematics without being aware of Emmy Noether. I doubt you could argue that she is under-celebrated relative to other mathematicians.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:46 AM on March 27, 2012


There is almost no way you'd know anything about mathematics without being aware of Emmy Noether. I doubt you could argue that she is under-celebrated relative to other mathematicians.

jeffburdges: Hyperbolize much?

Let me name the mathematicians I knew of, prior to this post: Godel, Newton, L'Hopital, Poisson, Fermat, Gauss, Nash, Pythagoras, Euclid, Teacher, Poincare, Bessel, Fourier, Archimedes, ...

She is under-celebrated relative to other mathematicians.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:54 AM on March 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


(Apropos of nothing, "Teacher" should be "Student", the pseudonym of Gosset.)
posted by IAmBroom at 9:57 AM on March 27, 2012


Eh, I like to think I'm a decent amateur at math, and I'd certainly heard of Noether (and was vaguely aware that Noetherian Rings are a thing) but my knowledge about her is definitely scant compared to what I know about say, Galois, Gauss, Euler, Fermat, Cantor, Hilbert, etc.
posted by kmz at 9:59 AM on March 27, 2012


There are different fields of mathematics.

I'd still be surprised if, say, someone knew about Hamilton and Lagrange but not Noether. But if the first two names don't do much for you, then the third probably won't either.
posted by vacapinta at 10:04 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had only heard of her a year or so ago, myself. The symmetry/conservation thing is really an amazing insight, and I think it could do with a better pop-science treatment than has been available for it.
posted by empath at 10:07 AM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is Metafilter: everyone has heard of everyone. Or so it seems most days.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 10:26 AM on March 27, 2012


the quidnunc kid: I'm just saying, if her field isn't very famous, why would she be?
posted by phrontist at 10:29 AM on March 27, 2012


Funny, I just had my own personal Emmy Noether moment a few weeks ago. I had seen her name next to rings in algebra, and on those posters that leahwrenn mentioned. My view was "Okay, good mathematician.", and not much more. But recently I was looking into to the "symmetry => conserved quantity" stuff. My thinking was "Everybody knew that; it's basic.". And then it clicked — yes, it's basic, it's taught early on, it's at the heart of modern physics. It's basic, but it's not obvious. Someone had to invent it (or discover it, depending on your philosophy of mathematics). And it was Noether who did so. Wow.

There are some mathematical discoveries that are so basic that they stop being noticed. They get absorbed into the notation. [I think it was Michael Spivak who said that, in relation to Stoke's Theorem. Which, in this form, doesn't look like a big deal. But much of the hard work is in the definitions of d and ∂.]

Another example is Hermann Grassmann. What did he invent? Nothing much, just Linear Algebra.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:55 AM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think she is undercelebrated outside of mathematics in relationship to the scale of her achievements. Not a mathematician myself, and in fact never took a math class after high school and never took a physics class ever.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:06 AM on March 27, 2012


And then it clicked — yes, it's basic, it's taught early on, it's at the heart of modern physics. It's basic, but it's not obvious.

It's right up there with e=mc^2 and f=ma, in terms of importance, right? But I think it's hard to explain how powerful it is without getting into stuff like gauge symmetry and so on.

Feynman gave a decent explanation of it in one of his lectures, I think.
posted by empath at 11:11 AM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


My computer science program was so math-heavy that with 4 more math courses and a change of major, I'd have had a math degree instead. I took 4 semesters of physics. I regularly read popularizations of math and science and their history. I can name a lot of mathematicians.

And to the best of my recollection, I've never heard of Noether or her theorem. Might have happened in passing, but it didn't stick (symmetry implies conservation vaguely rings a bell.)

The things I don't know about math and physics can and do fill libraries -- normally I'd consider my ignorance of something just to confim my ignorance, and not say anything about the thing itself.

But it still seems to me Noether should be better known.

Thanks for posting it, jjray. Damn but the last paragraph was a sudden kick to the gut.
posted by Zed at 11:13 AM on March 27, 2012


I'd still be surprised if, say, someone knew about Hamilton and Lagrange but not Noether. But if the first two names don't do much for you, then the third probably won't either.

vacapinta, time to be surprised. Hamiltonian operators and Lagrange polynomials, check. "Noether"... did you misspell the antonym of "Either"?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:17 AM on March 27, 2012


Feynman gave a decent explanation of it in one of his lectures, I think.
posted by empath


Feynman's the only person I've seen that actually demonstrated Noether's theorem using a diagram! Amazing. It's clear that that man thought in diagrams.
posted by vacapinta at 11:18 AM on March 27, 2012


Phrontist: I wasn't having a go at you, but at Sir Decani the bold. I take your point, which is just and true.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:50 AM on March 27, 2012


Re-reading the article, does this make sense to anyone:
In the relationship between a star and its planet, for example, the shape and radius of the planetary orbit may change, but the gravitational attraction conjoining one to the other remains the same — and there’s your invariance.
What's invariant there? Newton's law of gravity? The value of G? The attraction sure doesn't stay the same; it varies as the radius varies.

All I can think is that the author got hold of a bad explanation from somewhere.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:57 AM on March 27, 2012


No, it doesn't make sense to me, either.
posted by empath at 12:01 PM on March 27, 2012


Emmy Noether did much more than "invent" her theorem of symmetry and conservation. She was a leading authority on algebra in the days when people still didn't know what algebra was. She laid much of the groundwork for the subject as it is presented today. Her most famous theorem has an undeniable importance in modern physics, but most of her work went into forming the bedrock of modern algebra.
posted by grog at 12:05 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


And if we're talking about underappreciated women in physics, Lise Meitner. She (with Otto Hahn, and Strassman) discovered nuclear fission, but Hahn alone got the Nobel for it.
posted by phliar at 12:22 PM on March 27, 2012


Noether is my personal hero, and that's without knowing about most of her work or properly understanding any of it. Was chatting about her (amongst other things) with my partner over a drink the other night having raised Noether's theorem in physics, only to find out from her I'd barely found out the tip of the iceberg of her impact in mathematics.
posted by edd at 12:23 PM on March 27, 2012


Having just consulted my undergrad algebra book, I guess it's too much of a stretch to claim anyone with a math degree that's worth the paper it's printed on has heard of Noether. But I was ready to make that claim. That's how not obscure Noether is.

(My fairly low level undergrad algebra book does mention Noether and Noetherian rings, but only in the 'general culture' bits at the start of chapters. Of course, shortly before the mention of Noether is one of my favourite algebra facts, which is that we only had a name for the notion of 'ring' in 1905.)
posted by hoyland at 12:46 PM on March 27, 2012


It is pretty wild that she was strong in physical dynamics and abstract algebra. Those are two very different types mathematics. grog, I'd love to hear more about algebra groundwork stuff.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:50 PM on March 27, 2012


Oh, come on. I heard about Noether in middle school.

This is actually true, because she was at Bryn Mawr for a while and I went to school near there and some (science?) teacher who may have gone to Bryn Mawr trotted her out as an example of a female mathematician.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:56 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


You named ten mathematicians who predated Noether by enough that they cannot realistically be compared, IAmBroom, not exactly people you'd need to "know anything about mathematics" to name.

Poincare and 'Student' were contemporaries of Noether but they're remembered outside mathematics largely for their applied work. Godel are Nash are famous and infamous respectively for fairly non-mathematical reasons.

There are an awful lot of mathematicians people simply don't know about unless they learned some modern mathematics, including Galois, Riemann, Cantor, Hilbert, Erdös, and Noether. Math is an enormous subject.

I cannot comment on whether Emmy Noether seems under celebrated for her work in physics, certainly she get's mentioned via Noether's theorem, but maybe drowned out amongst the talk of Hamiltonians and Lagrangians.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:09 PM on March 27, 2012


I'd love to hear more about algebra groundwork stuff.

Wiki has a decent summary.
posted by hoyland at 1:12 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


> You named ten mathematicians who predated Noether by enough that they cannot realistically be compared, IAmBroom, not exactly people you'd need to "know anything about mathematics" to name.

I have no idea what this is intended to mean, but I was a math major for a while and read more than one book on the history of math, but I was unfamiliar with Noether. You're picking a strange fight here.
posted by languagehat at 1:30 PM on March 27, 2012


Metafilter: You're picking a strange fight here.

(Seriously. Because lately it's seemed awfully fight-y around here.)
posted by benito.strauss at 2:30 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the relationship between a star and its planet, for example, the shape and radius of the planetary orbit may change, but the gravitational attraction conjoining one to the other remains the same — and there’s your invariance.

What's invariant there? Newton's law of gravity? The value of G? The attraction sure doesn't stay the same; it varies as the radius varies.

All I can think is that the author got hold of a bad explanation from somewhere.


Could he possibly mean that the sum of the kinetic energy and the gravitational potential energy remain the same? If so, he did garble it horribly.
posted by jamjam at 5:00 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


languagehat: allow me to translate for jeffburdges:

I need to move the goalposts!
posted by IAmBroom at 9:29 AM on March 28, 2012


(Apropos of nothing, "Teacher" should be "Student", the pseudonym of Gosset.)

Apropos of Guinness, I love Gossett because he spent his life trying to perfect their brew. I guess that's true love.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:44 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Godel are Nash are famous and infamous respectively for fairly non-mathematical reasons.

Nash, maybe, but Godel? I think not.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:46 PM on March 28, 2012


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