Emmy Noether: I am not a woman mathematician, I am a mathematician.

The painter Jean-Micheal Basquiat was famously quoted as saying “I am not a black artist, I am an artist.” His words challenge us to look at art with an open mind, without preconceptions based on the artist’s ethnic background. The quote resonated with me as I wandered the AGO looking at his richly expressive paintings. I think his quote goes way beyond the confines of painting or even art, however.  Artists make work that hopefully engage others; the same holds for Mathematics and all other scientific fields. As Basquiat’s comment implies, our background should not really have an influence on how our work is perceived. Of course, our background does deeply influence our work, as it should. In the end, the work is the only thing that survives.

The mathematician Emmy Noether was recently showcased as a Google doodle, marking her 133rd birthday. See https://www.google.com/doodles/emmy-noethers-133rd-birthday I referenced Noether in a recent blog post; as I say there, someone really needs to make a movie about her. I suggested Melissa McCarthy to play Emmy; this could be an Oscar opportunity for the actress known primarily for her comedic roles!

Like many mathematicians, I am most familiar with Noether’s work in abstract algebra. My introduction to her was in my first abstract algebra course in the early 1990s learning about Noetherian rings, which are rings satisfying an ascending chain condition on their ideals. To me “Noetherian” was just a technical condition on ideals, and I knew nothing of Emmy’s interesting and challenging life. When I learned that she was one of prominent women working in the golden age of 20th century abstract algebra, I decided to read more about her.

I wrote an essay about Noether’s life and work in a history of Mathematics course taken in the third year of my undergraduate degree. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during one of her algebra lectures. Apparently, she didn’t use notes but lectured spontaneously, much to the chagrin of those trying to learn. When she lectured, she was immersed in the topic, and didn’t care too much about her outward appearance.

The historical stature of her collaborators and students paint a picture of someone at the height of her powers. Names like Hilbert, Einstein, Artin, Fitting, Krull, and Taussky-Todd all have connections to Noether.  She was a real force of nature. David Hilbert was a friend and supporter, and was responsible for getting Emmy to work with him on mathematical aspects of general relativity (which apparently the Hilbert-Noether team proved rigorously before Einstein, although they claimed to not know the meaning of their calculations!). In some ways, Noether strikes me as a lesser known, pure mathematical version of Marie Curie.

There are great accounts of her life and work on- and off-line readily available now, so I won’t go into the details of why she was and remains such an important figure in algebra and physics. Google did a great thing with its doodle telling her story. No doubt many people have just learned the name Emmy Noether. Despite her relative obscurity. her life should be celebrated and her life story is truly inspiring.

-Anthony Bonato

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