“My methods are really methods of
working and thinking; this is why they
have crept in everywhere anonymously.”
Now, I know that “praise from a bunch of men” isn’t exactly the most important criterion for determining the value of a lady’s accomplishments, but when the genius mathematicians Pavel Alexandrov, Jean Dieudonné, Hermann Weyl, Norbert Wiener, and Albert Einstein all say that someone is the most important woman in the history of math, chances are they’re not wrong. The woman in question? Emmy Noether.
Amalie Emmy Noether was a total BAMF from the beginning. Born in 1882 to the German mathematician Max Noether and his wife, Ida, Emmy received an early education typical for girls at the time—studying mostly music and dance—and in 1900 went on to finishing school, where she passed her exams with flying colors. She initially intended to become an English and French teacher, but when the University of Erlangen began (reluctantly) allowing women through its doors (even though administrators feared that doing so would “overthrow all academic order,” which I guess is German for “upset all the men”), Emmy signed up for some math classes—and turned out to be really, really good at them. At first she could only audit courses, and even then she had to obtain the permission of each professor. But she kept at it and graduated in 1903. Once the restrictions against female students had been eliminated, Emmy was able to undertake her dissertation, which she completed in 1907. (It’s titled “On the Complete Systems of Invariants for Ternary Biquadratic Forms,” which sounds like super-breezy reading, no?). She would later call her paper a “Formelngestrüpp” and “Mist” (that’s “jungle of formulas” and “crap”) because Emmy was self-deprecating and likable, sort of a twentieth-century German Zooey Deschanel, complete with quirky bow tie.
But even with the restrictions lifted against women in universities, do you think guy scholars were okay with a woman trying to work in their (well, “their”) math departments, as though she belonged? Nope. Grudgingly, the men did let Emmy work at the university for seven years—but for zero salary. (And we think summer internships are rough!) Even when her hard work paid off and she was invited in 1915 to join the University of Göttingen as a lecturer, the administration made her lecture for four more years under the name of her male supervisor.
That’s how much Emmy loved math: she did her thing for free under humiliating circumstances. (How can you not be blown away by her dedication?) Fortunately, Emmy’s supervisor was ahead of his time. He didn’t understand why his colleagues were so against her and campaigned to get Emmy a real post at the university. “I do not see that the sex of a candidate is an argument against her admission as [an official lecturer],” he said. “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.” (Snap!) Emmy in turn took that statement as a challenge and started swimming at a men-only pool. (Double snaps!)
Finally, in 1919 Emmy began to lecture under her own banner, and mathematicians around the world soon took notice—especially since she proved some important theorems around this time. How important? Potentially the most important. Noether’s theorem (which we do not have the page space to write out in its entirety, trust us) basically explains that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It’s why a bicycle works the way it does: because a spinning symmetrical bicycle wheel will always want to maintain its original direction and speed. Emmy’s theorem (which is technically four theorems) has been called one of “the most important mathematical theorems ever” by modern physicists and is essentially as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity (a little supposition you may have heard of). The theorem put Emmy’s name on the map, literally. By 1933 people were calling her students “Noether boys,” and these days all objects that meet the qualifications of her theorem are called “Noetherian.” (Namecheck? Check.)
But not everything was easy: this was 1930s Germany after all, and Emmy was Jewish. When the Nazis threw Jewish scholars out of universities, Emmy escaped to the United States and eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where she took a post at Bryn Mawr College in 1933. There she befriended fellow lady mathematician Anna Wheeler and was praised by the college president as an awesome example for mathematicians everywhere. Though Emmy also lectured at Princeton’s Flexner Institute, she found it to be a “men’s university, where nothing female [was] admitted,” and decided to stick it out at Bryn Mawr. Continuing her lifelong independent streak, Emmy, who was near-sighted and spoke with a lisp, never married, wore men’s shoes, and was overwhelmingly optimistic—fellow mathematician Hermann Weyl once described her as “warm like a loaf of bread.” One day during a lecture break when two female students approached her to (hopefully politely) point out her eccentric appearance (including frizzy hair and untucked shirt), they couldn’t even get their professor’s attention because Emmy was too busy with other students discussing more math.
In 1935 Emmy underwent surgery for an ovarian cyst and died from complications four days later, at the age of fifty-three. Albert Einstein wrote a eulogy, published in the New York Times, in which he called her “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” Hermann Weyl gave a moving memorial address, praising Emmy as “a great mathematician, the greatest, I firmly believe, that her sex has ever produced, and a great woman.” Today, Emmy has a crater on the moon and an asteroid named after her, and she’s even graced the Google Doodle. So thanks, Emmy. The next generation of brilliant math ladies will have so much to say about you.