Announcing the Emmy Noether Scholarship

Supporting our students

I’ve had the privilege over the last four years to serve as Associate Dean, Students and Programs in Graduate Studies at Ryerson University. Working in a Dean’s office has parts that are both rewarding and challenging, and I will miss the students I have met from every discipline and background. I’ve also been lucky to have a lifetime total of twenty of my own graduate students who’ve I’ve mentored over the last two decades. My students teach me as much as I do them.

As I leave my Associate Dean position in July to take a long overdue sabbatical, I was thinking about a way to further support graduate education at Ryerson, and an idea for a scholarship occurred to me. From my days as Department Chair, I know that professors can fund scholarships, and this is one of the most efficient ways to create them. While there are plenty of donors out there, there are also so many good causes pulling at people’s attention.

Who was Emmy Noether?

She’s one of the most important mathematicians in modern times, yet her name is unknown to many non-mathematicians. Along with giants like Curie, Turing, and Einstein, she should be one of our modern scientific heroes.

Born in 1882 in Erlangen Germany, Emmy Noether was the oldest child in a family with three brothers. We take it for granted now that women can study mathematics in universities but it was not so in Noether’s day.  Her father Max Noether used his influence (he was a well-known mathematician also) to help get her into the University of Erlangen, where she was one of the few women students. She completed her doctorate in 1907. Even when she eventually became a professor at Göttingen in 1915, her appointment was met with resistance by many faculty. The leading mathematician of the time, David Hilbert, argued her case in a famous exchange where he said “…we are a university, not a bath house.”

Image result for emmy noether with hilbert
A young Emmy Noether.

Noether helped develop the field of modern algebra as we know it today, worked on conservation and symmetry laws in physics, and collaborated closely with Einstein and Hilbert on the mathematical foundations of General Relativity. Every mathematics undergraduate learns of Noetherian rings and Noetherian modules. Her students themselves were themselves legendary, and include such names as Max Deuring, Hans Fitting, and Olga Taussky Todd.

Image result for emmy noether bryn mawr
Emmy with friends, 1931.

If her challenges faced as a woman were not enough, then her Jewish heritage provided yet more complications. With a form letter from the Prussian Ministry for Sciences, Art, and Public Education in 1933, she was fired from the University of Göttingen simply for being a Jew. The Nazis in Germany at the time dismissed all Jewish professors, such as Noether, from the universities. Some argue that mathematics at Göttingen and would never be the same after the Jewish faculty were removed. That’s a timely reminder for us in our uncertain times.

Noether came to Bryn Mawr for the last two years of her life to study and teach. There she helped foster the young genius Olga Taussky Todd, who later became a major figure in matrix theory.

Noether died of uterine cancer in 1935.  Her ashes were spread under the walkway in The Cloisters at Bryn Mawr, and the only indication of that today is a simple stone marker on the ground bearing her initials.

Image result for emmy noether  bryn mawr
Emmy’s stone marker in The Cloisters at Bryn Mawr.

Because its 2017

Things are so much better for women in mathematics and all of STEM than in Noether’s day. Women can study, teach, and get tenure, of course. But do women have all the same opportunities as men in universities?

Sadly, the answer is no. Women in STEM still face systemic issues. On average, 20% of mathematics professors in Canada are women. While part of this comes from the fact that the turnover of tenured professors takes decades, we are nevertheless slow to change as a discipline, and it will take a concerted effort to change the in-grained culture.

My hope is that in a small way, the Emmy Noether scholarship can help bolster women students in mathematics at Ryerson to further study, and also shine a spotlight on the incredible life and work of Emmy Noether.

The Emmy Noether Scholarship will be awarded first in the Fall semester of 2017, and go to a female student in our Applied Mathematics Masters program with the highest-grade point average entering their second year. Please visit the Faculty of Science to learn more on how to support mathematics and STEM at Ryerson.

Anthony Bonato

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