Emmy and Albert Talk about Talks

150th blog today!

I wrote a story featuring Emmy Noether and Albert Einstein chatting in 2017 on academic talks. Yes, it’s fiction, but there are relevant nuggets here on how to give an effective math presentation.



Großartig! Simply lovely. Don’t you think so, Albert?” Emmy leaned forward and bit the fingernail on her right index finger. Albert ran his fingers through his bushy mustache and flashed his teeth in a wide smile.

The room was bright with yellow sunshine that was warm on her left cheek. They sat at the back of the room behind rows of chairs, with a long table and a podium at the front. The doctoral defense had ended and there were smiles and hugs exchanged between the student and supervisor. Mathematical diagrams and formulas riddled the chalkboard, only a few of which looked familiar to Emmy.

“Yes, I agree. You are gifted at many things, including detecting greatness,” Albert said. “But there is something very odd here, don’t you think? The proverbial elephant in the room. We sat unnoticed through a doctoral defense in the year 2017.”

Emmy nodded. “I do suppose we did do that extraordinary thing, invisible like a fly on a wall. I don’t mind it so much, as long as we eventually get to go back to the 1930s. Did you notice how strangely people dress? And they are obsessed with those little pocket-sized devices that they tap endlessly. At least we are not ghosts,” she said, patting his hand.

“But if I too am a ghost, then touching me doesn’t necessarily imply we are corporeal,” Albert said, his eyes widening.

“You are the world-famous physicist so perhaps you can offer up your hypothesis as to how we got here?” Emmy smoothed back her hair pulled back tight in a bun.

Albert cleared his throat. “My field equations have a solution which allows for connections across spacetime. I’m publishing a paper with Rosen on just that.  I happily predict the effect should be temporary.”

They sat in uncomfortable silence until Albert spoke.

“Fräu Noether, we were discussing the lecture and I am most curious about your opinion.”

Entschuldigung—it was very good indeed. She answered all the questions with patience and fortitude. How funny now that they give talks with calculating machines and movies,” Emmy said.

“I think she called them “slides” on a “PC,” whatever that is. She began by posing the main problem of her thesis. What I liked was that she didn’t jump right into her results, but rather took time to frame the problem incrementally, giving background on what is known in the literature.”

“It was a short talk, maybe twenty or so minutes. That is OK with me as I am easily bored.”

Ach, nee! You’re never boring when you give a talk. Waving your arms and slapping chalk all over your dresses,” Albert said and winked.

“When I lecture mathematics, especially something truly exciting, I become overwhelmed with the emotions of it. My apologies if I scare the occasional undergraduate.”

“The main findings of her thesis were carefully laid out. I find it amusing how interesting mathematics comes from considering collections of dots and lines. I think she called it graph theory. There was even a sketch of a proofI appreciate that she didn’t bombard us with a depressing number of details.”

“In mathematics, the devil is in the details, but I agree with your assessment. We can always read the paper instead of listening for hours to every damn logical inference. She ended with a list of problems too, which I thought was useful.”

Emmy leaned back in her chair, enjoying the warmth of the September sun—it was no less charming even though it was eighty years older. She closed her eyes for a brief moment.

“To think, it is 2017, and they are still studying and proving. Mathematics never ends,” Emmy said. She drummed her fingers on the desk.

“Unlike us mere mortals, with beginnings and endings. Even the universe had a beginning and likely has an end. Maybe our presence here shifted out of time and space indicates there is something more to our existence that we cannot fathom?”

“I’ll leave the philosophical imaginings to you, my dear Albert. I’m late for my ringentheorie lecture at Bryn Mawr, and I was going to coffee with Olga after that. What do you conjecture happens next in our little foray into the distant future?”

“My dear Emmy, I don’t know but I can only imagine. The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. One thing is certain: it is always a pleasure chatting with you, whatever our coordinates in spacetime.”

“You old softy. One thing I’ve never asked you but now is as perfect a time as any. Can you ever forgive me and David Hilbert for proving General Relativity before you?”

Albert raised his eyebrows and stuck out his tongue. Emmy laughed.

Image result for einstein tongue

Anthony Bonato

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